France withstood a ferocious second-half comeback from Argentina to win 23-21 in a tension-filled Rugby World Cup group opener on Saturday.
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'.
It wasn't a good start from the Albiceleste, who will now likely need to beat England to avoid an early exit.
The Pumas did, however, almost pull off an astonishing comeback after being sent into battle. 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.
Argentina threw everyone forward in one final onslaught and players from both teams clashed as emotions erupted at the final whistle — overwhelming relief for France; bitter despair for Argentina.
"It was hard. We know Argentina has a good team, we also know we have a lot of work to do," France coach Jacques Brunel said. "But we showed a good attitude; we convinced ourselves we could beat them."
Luckily so, since another French flop seemed to be on the cards.
Back in February, France led Wales 16-0 at halftime in the Six Nations and lost. Surely not déjà-vu?
"We're crazy. We need to put ourselves in this type of situation in order to get out of it," France captain Guilhem Guirado said. "It's been our weakness in the past. For once, we won."
In a tough pool containing 2003 champions England, this was a massive win for France and a soul-crushing 10th straight defeat for Argentina.
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma, meanwhile, was aghast at his team's abject first-half showing.
"We were late to everything, just running after them. There was a lack of urgency and too many missed tackles. On the back foot, and we did not play like we need to play," he said. "In the second half we were playing on the front foot, physicality, driving mauls ... and not missing tackles."
He also took a swipe at some of the late decisions by referee Angus Gardner, saying a penalty should have been awarded against No. 8 Louis Picamoles because he was offside intercepting an Argentina pass; that France players were warned by Gardner they risked a yellow card and didn't get them, and that a France player failed to roll away from a tackle and stopped scrum-half Tomás Cubelli getting to the ball.
"They were clear game-changing decisions," Ledesma said.
"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."
Guirado backed Ledesma's view of the overall decision-making; saying there was much "nonsense" and a "lack of coherence" in scrums.
Early French dominance
It could have been a more convincing win but France does not do cruise control anymore — even after fine tries from centre Gaël Fickou and bustling scrum-half Antoine Dupont put Les Bleus in complete control in a first half. Assured fly-half Romain Ntamack convered both tries and add two penalties.
France finished off a productive attack in the 17th minute.
Ntamack fed Virimi Vakatawa 20 meters out, the former rugby sevens winger popped a pass left to Fickou and he side-stepped inside neatly from the left for his eighth international try. Four minutes later, fullback Maxime Médard combined with imposing winger Damian Penaud in the right corner before Dupont darted over.
The 20-year-old Ntamack smudged his otherwise clean copy book when he went from 4/4 to 4/5 with his kicking, missing a late penalty which would have given the French a five-point buffer. He had some nervous moments before Boffelli also missed his shot at goal.
Argentina took the early lead through fly-half Nicolás Sánchez's 14th-minute penalty, but was outplayed for the remainder of the first half.
The second half was a contrast.
No. 8 Ortega Desio rose imperiously to cleanly take a lineout near the line and lock Guido Petti burrowed over for a converted score to start the comeback.
France was getting smashed in the pack, and replacement Pumas hooker Julian Montoya pulled another try back in the 53rd following a driving maul. Sánchez missed the conversion, his kicking was clearly off.
So Benjamin Urdapilleta took over, and his penalties suddenly had Argentina 21-20 ahead with 12 minutes left.
Los Pumas fans were doing all the singing among the 44,000 fans at Tokyo Stadium, drowning out nervous French fans dreading recent history repeating itself.
In the end, the French fans had their voices back. But the players aren't crowing.
"We're not going to get carried away, because we're inconsistent," Guiardo said. "We're not going to look too far ahead. Qualification for the quarterfinals isn't assured."
Still, at least France has cause to feel optimistic about its running game.