TOKYO — France’s young guns gave ‘les Bleus’ a robust first-half lead in their Rugby World Cup opener against Argentina on Saturday but, when the going got tough, it was cool-headed experience that saved the day.
The French, sparked by the likes of 20-year-old Romain Ntamack at flyhalf, 22-year-olds Damian Penaud on the wing and Antoine Dupont at scrumhalf, had pushed the scoreline to 20-3 at the break and the match looked safely in their hands.
But after the Pumas staged a furious fightback to take a 21-20 lead, late French replacement Camille Lopez coolly sent a drop-kick just over the crossbar to seal the match and save French blushes.
“We know that every game of a Rugby World Cup is tough. We had the experience to finish the game and they did really, really well,” Ntamack said of the team’s substitutions.
“It was a really, really tough game. We knew we’d face a really strong Argentina team and after a stressful game we’re happy to have won here.”
The French went into their Pool C opening match against the Pumas knowing the loser would likely have to beat group favorites England to have a chance at advancing to the quarter-finals.
But head coach Jacques Brunel opted to start Ntamack, with just eight caps to his name, over the 30-year-old Lopez. Ntamack remained on the pitch and switched to center when Lopez came in as flyhalf, showing Brunel’s faith in the young Toulouse player.
Ntamack, whose father Emile was part of the French side that reached the World Cup final in 1999, made an instant impact with two conversions and two penalties in the first half, though he missed a late penalty that would have given his side more breathing room.
Of the 10 tier-one nations in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, France have the youngest squad, followed by Argentina, suggesting the future is bright for both sides, regardless of how the rest of Japan 2019 plays out.