Rugby World Cup 2019: Nervy France survive Pumas scare, Fiji rue indiscipline against Australia
Argentina miss last-minute penalty to snatch game from France in 23-21 defeat as Wallabies run out 39-21 winners over Fiji
France produced some exhilarating rugby before almost losing the plot and having to survive a last-gasp penalty to pip Argentina 23-21 in their Rugby World Cup 2019 opener.
Fly-half Romain Ntamack paced a schizophrenic French performance with 10 points as the three-time finalists hung on to win a pulsating Pool C clash in Tokyo and leave the Pumas staring into the abyss in the tournament's so-called "group of death".
Argentina, who will now likely need to beat England to avoid an early exit, almost pulled off an astonishing comeback after being sent into battle by an emotional rallying cry from football legend Diego Maradona.
Trailing by 17 points at half time, they fell just short after a last-minute penalty from Emiliano Boffelli sailed just wide, allowing France to claim a crucial victory.
"I thought the game was finished, I thought we'd lost the game," admitted France captain Guilhem Guirado, referring to the late penalty Australian referee Angus Gardner awarded to Argentina.
"But I am very, very proud of my boys. It was a tough game tonight but we are very happy to start the competition with a win."
A cagey opening was punctuated by some bone-shuddering tackles from both sides, Argentine fly-half Nicolas Sanchez sent sprawling by prop Jefferson Poirot in a monster collision.
Lock Guido Petti was a one-man wrecking crew for the Pumas in the early skirmishes and his bulldozing run led to a 15th-minute penalty that Sanchez slotted over to put the 2015 semi-finalists on the board first.
But France hit back quickly through Gael Fickou, who showed great feet to beat two Argentina defenders and score after good work from fellow centre Virimi Vakatawa.
Their tails up, the French extended their advantage with another sumptuous try four minutes later when flying winger Damian Penaud caused panic in Argentina's defence before flipping the ball to Antoine Dupont to crash over.
Ntamack added a pair of penalties that sent Les Bleus into half time leading 20-3, book-ending a key passage of play where France's giant front row stopped Argentina's scrum on their own goal line.
A bruising game was played in a carnival atmosphere, with many travelling fans sporting colourful national garb, including a noisy group of French fans dressed as Gallic roosters.
But Argentina were all business and came out firing in the second half as Petti marked his 50th cap by trundling over from a driving lineout to reduce the deficit.
Another driving maul allowed Julian Montoya to dive before a Benjamin Urdapilleta penalty on the hour-mark made it a two-point game.
Urdapilleta stroked another three-pointer to give Argentina the lead with 12 minutes to play, completing a remarkable turnaround.
But Camille Lopez dragged France back in front moments later with a superb drop goal that just had the legs in his first involvement after coming on.
Ntamack missed a late penalty before Boffelli hooked his long-range effort just wide to allow France to escape after an ill-tempered affair which boiled over after the final whistle as fighting broke out between the two sets of players.
Argentina head coach Mario Ledesma accused Gardner of favouring France with his decisions.
"It's a shame to be refereed like a small nation," he fumed.
"But we didn't do anything in the first half, defended badly, didn't attack well -- lost every ball into contact," added Ledesma, who was left to rue fine margins.
"We created many opportunities, scored, missed two points, missed three points in the first half. It comes down to that."
Australia 39-21 Fiji
Fiji had Australia on the ropes in their Rugby World Cup opener on Saturday but unless they learn how to close games out they will struggle to find success at test level, coach John McKee said after watching his side go down 39-21 at the Sapporo Dome.
Fiji have not beaten the Wallabies since 1954 but looked on course to deliver a huge shock in their Pool D match after tries from Peceli Yato and Waisea Nayacalevu, and 11 points from the boot of Ben Volavola, helped them to a 21-12 second-half lead.
However, a combination of injuries and indiscipline, coupled with some tighter, safer play from the Australians, shifted the momentum away from Fiji.
Hooker Tolu Latu scored a brace of tries either side of a yellow card to Fiji's Levani Botia and the Wallabies then took full advantage of the extra man, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete touching down to put the game away.
McKee said there was much to be pleased about in Fiji's performance.
"Certainly we take a lot of positives from that game, we had Australia on the rails for 40 minutes and a portion of the second half," he told a media conference.
"Some things went against us, penalties, the yellow card, we have got to close games out.
"You don't win test matches by being able to play really well for 60 minutes."
McKee said he had not seen any replays of Australian winger Reece Hodge's no-arms tackle that made contact with the head of flanker Yato, who had to leave the field and did not return after failing a head injury assessment.
"Losing Peceli early in the game when he was having such an impact, losing him to a concussion was a big loss for us," said McKee.
Fiji captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu said the mood in the dressing room was still upbeat.
"It was very disappointing, the end result. But it's just the first game, we still have three more matches to go," he added. "The boys are still in high spirits and were focusing on the next game."
Waqaniburotu said they gave away too many penalties in the second half, which put them on the back foot.
"We lost a little bit of discipline which cost us a lot of ball in the second half," he added. "There was a lot of possession by the Australians, we were defending a lot in the second half which caused us to give away penalties."
Fiji next face Uruguay in Pool D on Wednesday, while Australia meet Wales a week on Sunday, and McKee said there was still all to play for with two teams to go through to the quarter-finals.
"I think we're still right in this tournament," he added. "We'll be watching with interest to see how Australia and Wales go."
Updated: September 21, 2019 05:05 PM