By Ian Ransom
OITA, Japan (Reuters) – Three-times finalists France head into their World Cup clash with Tonga on Sunday battling a rising injury toll and hoping to avoid a repeat of their stunning upset by the Pacific islanders at the 2011 tournament in New Zealand.
Before Japan’s ‘Miracle of Brighton’ win over South Africa four years ago in England, Tonga could arguably claim the biggest shock in World Cup history when they felled the French 19-14 in Wellington.
A France squad riven by disharmony and in open rebellion against coach Marc Lievremont ultimately regrouped to reach the final and lose by a point to the All Blacks.
Tonga were ultimately eliminated but returned home to a hero’s welcome.
Eight years on, France, one of the youngest outfits in Japan, have only fullback Maxime Medard from the Les Bleus team that was pilloried by media and fans after the Tonga turmoil.
Yet they are wary of history repeating at a tournament that has already yielded magic for the underdogs, with Japan’s sparkling win over Ireland and Uruguay’s Fijian surprise.
“This is also the biggest pack of this World Cup,” coach Jacques Brunel said of Tonga, who lost their opening Pool C games to England and Argentina.
“We have seen that they are capable of imposing this power, that they are difficult to manoeuvre.
“This team has power, strength, it is aggressive, enterprising. We will have a big challenge.”
France’s preparations for the match at Kumamoto Stadium have been overshadowed by injuries, with fullback Thomas Ramos and hooker Peato Mauvaka ruled out of the World Cup on Friday.
The squad’s tournament-ending injuries now number four, with winger Wesley Fofana and prop Demba Bamba having already exited.
A back problem for Antoine Dupont further clouded the camp but Brunel included the talented young scrumhalf in the reserves and insisted the injury was minor.
French rugby were embarrassed earlier this week after naming an injured replacement for Bamba, and issued an apology after changing the replacement to Racing 92 prop Cedate Gomes Sa.
Sports daily L’Equipe alleged further impropriety, saying the federation had released the starting 15 for Tonga on social media on Thursday without the team’s prior knowledge.
Brunel, however, said the team was set in stone for 10 days and refuted reporters’ suggestions the players had been trained too hard.
“Not at all. Analyse the injuries we are talking about. Peato did not get injured in a match and for Thomas (Ramos), it’s accidental,” he said.
The 65-year-old named a stronger starting lineup than the 15 who laboured against the United States before the reserves carried them through to a 33-9 win in Fukuoka on Wednesday.
Scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, who was instrumental off the bench against the U.S., has been rewarded with the number nine shirt and will partner with 20-year-old Romain Ntamack in France’s third halfback combination in three games.
Prop Jefferson Poirot will become France’s third captain at the World Cup, with regular skipper Guilhem Guirado on the bench again and number eight Louis Picamoles, who led the side against the U.S., rested.
Should France click, their classy backline could pile on the tries.
Tonga, however, were buoyed by their strong second half against Argentina and may feel they can revive the glory days of 2011 should they maintain the intensity against what appears a brittle French side under pressure.
“We know the old boys did it in 2011,” said winger Cooper Vuna, who played two tests for Australia in 2012.
“Now it’s down to us to pull off another upset.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)