KUMAMOTO, 6 Oct – French relief was matched by Tongan pride in Kumamoto on Sunday after a thrilling match that brought back many memories of when they last met in the Rugby World Cup eight years ago.
The Pacific Islanders won that game in Wellington 19-14 for the greatest day in their rugby history, but this time France held on for a 23-21 victory, which means they join England in qualifying for the quarter-finals from Pool C.
The two teams meet in Yokohama next Saturday to decide who wins the group, but while Eddie Jones’s side have breezed through their three games so far France have struggled against Argentina, the USA and now Tonga – all of whom are out of contention for a last-eight spot.
"We have a lot of work to do," said France captain Jefferson Poirot. "England are tough and we know how difficult it will be."
Tonga have only pride left to play for in their final game against USA next Sunday. But they have massive amounts of that and the way the 28,477 crowd cheered and chanted their name at the end spoke volumes for their contribution not just to this contest, but the World Cup.
A week ago they came back from 28-0 behind to lose "only" 28-14 to Argentina and this time they reduced an early 17-0 deficit to 17-14 and then scored a third try two minutes from the end to be only two points behind.
A short delay in allowing the conversion to be taken, however, meant there were fewer than 20 seconds left when France kicked off again and they snuffed out the threat of another defeat to the 'Ikale Tahi.
"We haven’t started games well and it’s definitely an issue for us," said Tonga coach Toutai Kefu. "Maybe we warm up too long, I don’t know.
"But I’m definitely proud of what happened after that – the way they stuck in there and put us in a position to maybe win.
"I’m always proud of the boys, the sacrifices they make just to turn up and endure what they endure on tour."
Player of the Match was French wing Alivereti Raka, a danger whenever he touched the ball. He set up the first try for centre Virimi Vakatawa – also born in Fiji – after only five minutes and then scored himself on the half-hour after a quick tap-and-go from a free-kick by scrum-half Baptiste Serin.
With fly-half Romain Ntamack adding a penalty and both conversions it was 17-0, but just before the interval Tongan scrum-half Sonatane Takalua got the ball over – it needed the television match official to confirm it.
There was a clap of thunder overhead and the match was really alive again after 46 minutes when a kick ahead by Tonga winger Cooper Vuna bounced horribly for the French defence and wonderfully for France-based centre Malietoa Hingano.
Moments earlier Charles Ollivon had had a try ruled out for a marginally forward pass, so things were definitely going Tonga’s way at that stage.
Nerves were settled somewhat with Ntamack adding two more penalties for 23-14 and even though another TMO decision ruled out a potential Damian Penaud try – Mexine Medard had knocked on just before – the French must have thought they were home and dry until a crossfield kick found flanker Zane Kapeli and he touched down.
Replacement Latiume Fosita converted, but although there was still time for the restart France claimed it and gratefully kicked the ball into the stand.