Three late tries, including two from replacement players, added gloss to an otherwise scrappy and inconsistent performance from France. The U.S. Eagles were 12-9 down with a little more than 15 minutes left, but ultimately didn't create enough pressure to test the wilting French.
"We lost our way a bit," said backrower Louis Picamoles, the France captain on the day. "It was tough for an hour but the players coming off the bench helped us a lot. We didn't concede a try, and that's a positive point for us."
Three-time finalist France joins England on two wins in Pool C and is a step closer to maintaining its record of never failing to reach the knockout rounds. But this was largely a match to forget for coach Jacques Brunel's error-strewn squad as poor handling and positional play allowed the Americans to get within touching distance thanks to flyhalf AJ MacGinty's third penalty goal of the game.
The "USA, USA" chants were getting louder at Fukuoka's Hakatanomori Stadium, and the memory of an upset 19-14 loss to Tonga at the 2011 World Cup was doubtless looming larger in French minds. The relief was evident when center Gael Fickou spotted a gap and broke two tackles for a converted try with about 10 minutes left.
Finally the U.S. cracked. Replacement scrumhalf Baptiste Serin used his speed to peel away for France's fourth try, after good work from right winger Alivereti Raka and flanker Yacouba Camara. Replacement prop Jefferson Poirot gleefully grabbed the fifty try with the clock ticking down.
"Satisfied to have won, five points is good, too. We struggled a bit, that's obvious," Brunel said. "We conceded nine penalties. I told the referee I thought that was a lot, it was a bit unbalanced." France led 12-6 at halftime after flyhalf Camille Lopez set up tries inside the opening 25 minutes for wingers Yoann Huget and Raka with kicks into the corners.
But countless French errors kept the U.S. in contention at the break, with MacGinty landing two first-half penalties from in front of the posts. "I'm incredibly proud of this group of players. I really feel we did go toe to toe-toe, we never did give up the fight," U.S. head coach Gary Gold said. "When you play a team of the French caliber, if you make mistakes in crucial areas of the field they will punish you."
The Eagles had their second defeat of the tournament, after a 45-7 loss to 2003 champion England, but Gold was still heartened. "We performed a lot better today than against England. Toward the latter stages of the game the luck went against us," Gold said. "Until that stage we were asking questions of them."
France's next game is against Tonga on Sunday, while the Eagles take on two-time semifinalist Argentina three days later. The French still need to fine-tune their game and, as often is the case, simply don't do things in a conventional way.
After leading 20-3 at halftime in its opening game against Argentina, France needed a late dropped goal from the replacement Lopez to win 23-21. This time, the French looked comfortable at 12-3 but then made a string of mistakes.
"We started well and we had the intention to play behind their line, which we did well initially," Brunel said. "Then we stopped putting them under pressure and we were countered by a strong defense."
France needed some leadership and hooker Guilhem Guirado — one of 12 players swapped out after the Argentina game — replaced the ineffective Camille Chat for the second half. "Not at all," Brunel replied defensively when asked if the scenario of the game led to Guirado going on earlier than anticipated.
Keen to sharpen up, the French even did a quick coaching drill before the Americans were back out on the field after halftime. But it made little difference, as twice they conceded turnovers from driving mauls near the U.S. line early into the new half.
Les Bleus could not get things going, and even when winger-turned-center Sofiane Guitoune made a brilliant, scything run through midfield before setting up Raka in the right corner, his long and looping pass was judged to have been forward.
Still, France showed it has the ability to step up a gear and — just as play had been sloppy beforehand — the three tries were clinically taken near the end. "That's the second time our bench has helped us, whereas in the past we have been found wanting," Brunel said. "They were effective, and that's great."
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