KUMAMOTO, 5 Oct – A preview of the Pool C match between France and Tonga, which kicks off at 16:45 on Sunday at Kumamoto Stadium.
The Big Picture
Only three nations – New Zealand, Australia and France – have reached at least the quarter-finals of every Rugby World Cup. Les Bleus are on course to do it again after two games in Pool C.
But Jacques Brunel's team have had to navigate tricky situations in their first two pool matches.
France were 20-3 up at half-time against Argentina in Tokyo, pictured above, but would have lost had Emiliano Boffelli landed a last-minute penalty for the Pumas.
Then outsiders USA battled their way to 12-9 down with fewer than 15 minutes left in Fukuoka on Wednesday before falling away to a 33-9 defeat.
In Kumamoto on Sunday, France face a Tonga side who have lost to England and Argentina by a combined 48 points. But the Sea Eagles believe they can pull off an upset against the French just as they did at Rugby World Cup 2011.
"There seemed to be a bit of turmoil about them that year," said current coach Toutai Kefu, who was an assistant with Tonga at that tournament.
"Yet three weeks after losing to us (19-14) they nearly beat the All Blacks in the final.
"Both their games have been a bit scrappy, but their best footie is probably in front of them."
Brunel's first-choice starting XV is still unclear, and the coach was hit by more injury withdrawals on Thursday.
With England to come in France's last pool game next weekend, an impressive performance now would do wonders for confidence levels. But the result against Tonga comes first.
"They have power, strength, are aggressive and enterprising," said Brunel. "We will have a big challenge."
Full-back Maxime Medard is the only player in the France squad who played in the 2011 match in Wellington - Louis Picamoles and Guilhem Guirado were not included in the match-day 23.
The Sea Eagles are looking to feed off what captain and centre Siale Piutau and flanker Sione Kalamafoni, who both played from first to last whistle, achieved and a highlights video is going to be played at the team hotel in the build-up to the match.
Encouragingly, from 28-0 behind after 27 minutes against Argentina they did not concede another point and scored two tries through full-back Telusa Veainu.
They also felt they were hard done by when they were not awarded a penalty try on the stroke of half-time when winger David Halaifonua was taken out by the corner flag by Tomas Lavanini.
Piutau has said he thought it was important eight years ago that Tonga had several players with experience of playing in France and the same is true this time - five in the starting line-up and one on the bench.
Form guide (most recent matches first)
Played 5 – France 3W 2L Tonga 2W 3L
In the spotlight
Baptiste Serin is France's third starting scrum-half in three matches. He was influential when he came on with 16 minutes left against the United States, Les Bleus scoring 21 unanswered points.
Prop Jefferson Poirot, meanwhile, also makes it three captains in as many games.
Tonga hope that full-back Veainu, scorer of both tries against Argentina, can weave some more magic - this time not from a 28-0 deficit. Flanker Zane Kapeli, meanwhile, has been one of the break-out stars of the tournament so far with his crunching tackles, one in particular on England’s Billy Vunipola.
France make 11 changes from the side which beat USA, including Virimi Vakatawa, pictured above, who played against Argentina but was not in the 23 against USA.
More significantly five from the line-up which beat Argentina 23-21 in their opening game are out - Camille Chat for Guirado at hooker, Paul Gabrillagues for Arthur Iturria at second-row, Serin for Antoine Dupont at scrum-half, Alivereti Raka for Yoann Huget on the wing and Sofiane Guitoune for Gael Fickou at centre.
Tonga have only two changes from the team that battled back against Argentina. Cooper Vuna replaces Viliami Lolohea on the wing and the more mobile Ma’afu Fia is preferred to 151kg Ben Tameifuna at prop.
Stats and trivia
The defeat against Tonga in 2011 is still France's only loss in 22 matches against Tier 2 opposition in the World Cup.
France and Tonga also met at RWC 1995, Les Bleus winning 38-10 in Pretoria with Thierry Lacroix scoring 25 points.
Tonga have now lost their past four RWC matches. Their worst-ever run is five.
A la #RWC1995, @PSaintAndre s'était rasé la tête pour battre le Tonga 38-10 (et il y avait déjà un Ntamack dans l'équipe !)— Rugby World Cup (@RugbyWorldCupFR) October 4, 2019
Que va devoir faire @FranceRugby dimanche ??#FRAvTGA #RWC2019
📺 @TF1 (dimanche à 9h45, heure française) pic.twitter.com/HkVOeyXgCQ
"We do not talk about it at all. It has never been on the table. It is not a debate that has been started." - France fly-half Romain Ntamack on the defeat by Tonga in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
"We know the old boys did it. Now it's down to us to pull off another upset." - Tonga winger Cooper Vuna on trying to repeat 2011.