KUMAMOTO (REUTERS) - France withstood a furious Tonga fightback to grind into the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday (Oct 6), with a nerve-jangling 23-21 win that only just banished the ghosts of their shock loss to the Pacific islanders at the 2011 tournament.
The thrilling victory at balmy Kumamoto Stadium saw France joint England in the knockout stages while sending Tonga crashing out of the tournament with three successive defeats, with Pool C rivals Argentina and the United States also sent packing.
In a dramatic finale, flanker Zane Kapeli collected a cross-kick for a last-gasp try, Latiume Fosita's conversion then bringing the Tongans to within two points with under a minute left.
But France winger Damian Penaud, caught out of position for Tonga's last try, soared high to tap back the re-start and allowing France to hold on to victory.
"It's been a really, really tough game against really physical players but we are in the quarter-finals and we are really happy with that," said France No. 8 Gregory Alldritt.
Tonga, whose 19-14 win over Les Bleus in New Zealand eight years ago remains a fairy-tale chapter in World Cup folklore, battled hard right to the finish and for a while it seemed there could be a repeat.
But fly-half Romain Ntamack played a decisive role, steering two penalties between the posts to give the French a cushion that proved sufficient.
"Definitely frustrated, again we didn't get off to the best of starts and that probably told in the end," said Tonga coach Toutai Kefu.
"The guys dug in there, there was a period in the second half when the game was in the balance and the guys hung in and hung in. You can't question their effort."
Having cemented second place in the pool behind England, three-time finalists France will now head to Yokohama seeking victory over Eddie Jones's men for a kinder route through the knockout rounds.
France, after labouring to a 33-9 win over the US on Wednesday, were switched on from the first whistle and the flair and enterprise of Virimi Vakatawa and Alivereti Raka quickly caught the eye.
Raka burst away from a botched Tongan line-out before off-loading to centre Vakatawa for France's first try in the fifth minute as France went 10-0 up.
"For me, happy playing next to another Fijian," Raka said of his partnership with Vakatawa. "We talk a lot and we are talking on the same level so it's easy for us."
France did lose momentum, with handling errors and passes floating forward and wide. But their defence remained solid and they hit top gear again when scrum-half Baptiste Serin caught Tonga napping with a quick-tap penalty, whipping the ball wide to a charging Raka, who kicked a grubber past the last defender and collected it on the try-line.
Tonga needed to respond and did so through forward muscle. Snatching the ball out of a ruck and leaping for the line, scrum-half Sonatane Takulua was rewarded with a try after a lengthy television match official (TMO) review to give Tonga a huge boost and make it 17-7 at half-time.
The match turned on its head shortly after the break, with a thrilling try to France flanker Charles Ollivon ruled out by the TMO due to a forward pass.
Tonga immediately won a turnover with a bone-jarring tackle in midfield and winger Cooper Vuna hoofed the ball downfield, the ball bouncing wickedly and straight into the arms of gleeful centre Malietoa Hingano, who barged over.
With the ghosts of 2011 stirring, France redoubled their intensity at the breakdown and the pressure told as Tonga's discipline waned. Ntamack knocked over a pair of penalties to give his team breathing space at 23-14 and the match appeared settled when winger Damien Penaud cantered over in the 68th minute.
But again, the try was cancelled to leave French fans howling, with a knock-on by full-back Maxime Medard spotted by the TMO.