A much-changed Les Bleus struggled mightily against the Pool A minnows, failing to secure the bonus point in a disjointed display
Rugby World Cup hosts France spluttered to an unconvincing 27-12 win over unfancied Uruguay in Lille, with the tournament hosts failing to secure the bonus point try, and Los Teros unlucky to not come away with at least a losing bonus point.
It was the first ever meeting between Uruguay and France, and the pre-match atmosphere certainly befit the occasion. World Rugby’s wise decision to rejig the polarising children’s choir anthems allowed a much more bombastic rendition of La Marseillaise than we witnessed in Paris against the All Blacks on Friday night.
Just like at the Stade de France six nights ago however, France found themselves stunned by an early opposition try. After Melvyn Jaminet gave France the lead from the tee after an early scrum penalty, Los Teros almost immediately hit back.
After good work from the Uruguayan forwards from a lineout inside the French half, a dangerous cross-kick wasn’t dealt with by Jaminet, allowing Nicolas Freitas to get a toe on the ball and regather over the line to wild celebrations – with six minutes gone, Uruguay were ahead 5-3.
France soon struck back with a try of their own however – Antoine Hastoy finishing off a simple set-move from a five-metre scrum, after some jinking work from scrum-half Maxime Lucu to get Les Bleus in sight of the posts, and Jaminet extended the lead to 13-5 with another penalty, but the hosts weren’t having it all their own way.
A French website had described this much-changed French side as ‘necessarily vengeful’ – being made up primarily of players who either hadn’t been involved in the opening night, or ones who hadn’t covered themselves in glory if they had – but it was Uruguay, fresh having not had a game in round one, who looked more composed and dangerous.
Whenever France made headway into the Los Teros’ half, their progress was halted by well-organised orange-clad defence – pilfering ball, winning maul turnovers and even scrum penalties.
Things went from mediocre to worse for France when Romain Taofifénua was sent from the field in the 25th minute for a shoulder to the head of scrum-half Santiago Arata.
It was a decision that energised Uruguay – encouraging them to chance their arm on attack, and reaping territorial rewards, especially down Frietas’ left wing. But it could have been so much more – after winning a scrum penalty and kicking for the corner, a five-metre catch and drive was spun wide to inside centre Vilaseca, whose smart pull-back to Etcheverry allowed the fly-half to crash over under the posts.
Uruguay were celebrating wildly – as well you might expect – but before the conversion could be taken TMO Ben Whitehouse was uttering the dreaded “check check” in O’Keefe’s ear. The score would be ruled out because centre Tomás Inciarte’s dummy run was deemed to be obstructing.
With the Bunker perhaps generously determining that Taofifénua’s offence only merited a yellow card, his return put France back in control – at least territorially. Les Bleus made easy headway into the 22, but again were frustrated – a Hastoy cross kick was too long for Villière, and then Uruguay won a penalty on their line to send France into the sheds leading just 13-5.
France continued to make heavy going of things at the start of the second half, beginning to gain some rewards in the set-piece without doing much with it – Jaminet missed a long kick at goal, and Villière had what would have been a fortuitous try chalked off for a knock on. Vengeful, this was not.
France rang the changes with the score unchanged at 50 minutes but it was Uruguay who would see instant results – Arthur Vincent made a poor read as Uruguay attacked close to the line, allowing Baltazar Amaya to dot down untouched, with Etcheverry nailing the touchline conversion. Uruguay were within a point, 13-12.
Calamity then struck almost immediately – an attempted clearance of the kickoff ballooning back off a Uruguay player allowing replacement French hooker Mauvaka to scoop up the ball and crash over. It was a cruel reward for all Uruguay’s good work, and Hastoy made no mistake from the tee to give France a 20-12 lead.
But any thought that the try would settle France down was quickly dispelled – Les Bleus continued to look disjointed and uncomfortable in the face of dogged defence and opportunistic breakdown work from Uruguay.
France continued to dominate possession and territory without doing too much with it, though it did finally give some reward when Louis Bielle-Biarrey crashed over in the 73rd minute – finally putting the game beyond Uruguay.
Moments later, Sekou Macalou thought he’d secured the bonus try that would put a sheen on proceedings, when he came through the ruck and kicked on, using his blistering pace to score from the French 22. But it was France’s turn to have one chalked off for illegal use of feet in the ruck, to a chorus of boos from an increasingly fed up Lille crowd.
Uruguay spent most of the last few minutes in the French 22, but were unable to secure the try that would have given them a truly remarkable losing bonus point – despite an impressive burst for the line from replacement hooker Facundo Gattas.
In the end, a knock-on in front of France’s posts would end the encounter, leaving France missing the all important five-point win. While France can still top the pool by winning out regardless of what the All Blacks do in their remaining games, it was a sloppy and undisciplined display – with France shipping 15 penalties after conceding just four against New Zealand, and missing 20% of their tackles.
For Uruguay however, even in defeat it will rank alongside their victory over Fiji in 2019 as their greatest Rugby World Cup performance ever – and should serve as a warning for other Tier 1 teams to underestimate the so-called minnows at their peril.