|France: (9) 27|
|Tries: Penaud; Jaminet Pens: Ramos 5; Con: Ramos|
|New Zealand: (8) 13|
|Tries: Telea 2; Pen: Mo’unga|
France made the perfect start on their quest for a first Rugby World Cup title as they beat three-time champions New Zealand to delight the Stade de France in Paris.
The hosts had to fight deep into the final quarter as tries from New Zealand wing Mark Telea inside the opening minutes of both halves threatened to wreck the opening-day party.
Ultimately, though, Thomas Ramos’ relentless boot and a well-worked try from Damian Penaud edged them clear of the enterprising, if fading All Blacks.
A 73rd-minute penalty from Ramos finally put France out of seven-point range on the scoreboard and the home fans could celebrate in comfort as their players hunted for a crowning try.
They found it with three minutes left as Melvyn Jaminet gathered fellow replacement Maxime Lucu’s teasing chip.
France will continue their Pool A campaign on Thursday against Uruguay before meetings with Namibia and Italy.
Victories in all three would guarantee them top spot and a last-eight meeting with the runners-up from Pool B, which contains Ireland, South Africa and Scotland.
New Zealand, who had won all 31 of their previous pool-stage game at World Cups, will know from painful experience that all is not lost.
Four years ago, at Japan 2019, they beat South Africa in the pick of the pool-stage matches, only to watch the Springboks become the first team to lose their opening game and go on to lift the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
France’s players stayed out and and soaked up the atmosphere of blaring Euro-disco and late summer heat after the final whistle.
In seven weeks it will be autumn, but the stage will be the same. The result and, perhaps more importantly the resolve, will harden belief that this golden generation could be the one to finally lift the silverware that has escaped them in three previous finals.
Telea scores shock the Stade
The atmosphere had been similarly bubbling before kick-off, but it took only 93 seconds for the All Blacks to check expectations.
From New Zealand’s first piece of clean ball, Rieko Ioane sliced through a France midfield missing the presence of the injured Jonathan Danty and cantered into clear air.
France’s defence scrambled but never reset.
Beauden Barrett spotted a weakness and plonked a kick over the narrow Penaud, giving Telea enough time to collect a bouncing ball in comfort and dot down.
The Stade was stunned. But not for long.
A defiant chorus of Allez Les Bleus rang around as Richie Mo’unga tugged his conversion wide.
The home team responded and slowly clawed their way back. Two Ramos penalties capped a spell of pressure and gave them a 6-5 lead after 20 minutes.
New Zealand, whose captain Sam Cane was a late injury withdrawal, looked in no mood to play their assigned role of fall guy on the tournament’s opening night though. The three-time champions, stuffed with big-game smarts, probed cleverly and found space and weaknesses.
Telea bristled with threat and France, who lost hooker Julien Marchand to injury, coughed up mistakes to heap pressure on themselves.
Mo’unga and Ramos traded penalties for a 9-8 France lead and the crowd might have sat more comfortably at the break had the latter not missed a penalty from out wide, which may have been better kicked into the corner than at the sticks.
As it was, New Zealand ended the half on top. A delicious wraparound put Mo’unga into space and Dalton Papali’i surged deep into France territory. Pinned back on their own line, France’s relief was palpable as Codie Taylor’s pass drifted into touch to let them off the hook.
France stormed into the second half, Gregory Alldritt offloading to Antoine Dupont inside the first minute as the line beckoned.
The same pair had combined to cap France’s Grand Slam win over England here in 2022. This time though New Zealand snuffed out the threat and sparked something of their own.
As France’s blindside defence rushed up, Ioane spotted space and flung a ambitious, but accurate pass over the top. Telea gathered on the bounce and raced in to make it 13-9 to the All Blacks as the home fans screamed that the pass had drifted forward.
A replay on the big screen, shown after Mo’unga missed the conversion, only increased the decibels aimed at referee Jaco Peyper.
And the South African official’s popularity sunk further when Jalibert was flattened without the ball and play continued regardless.
It was beginning to feel like the evening might fall flat.
France fight back in final 25 minutes
However, the injustice fuelled some fight in the French and Penaud, having been denied shortly before by Mo’unga’s breathtaking corner-flagging cover tackle, plunged over to restore France’s lead to 16-13 after smart work from Jalibert.
Peyper partially satisfied the demands of the home fans, dispatching Will Jordan to the sin-bin for taking out Ramos in the air and France milked the man advantage for another penalty to crank the gap out to 19-13.
A flurry of points in the final six minutes plumped the scoreline to add some sheen to the home side’s work, but they were ultimately deserving winners of a game watched by the rest of the rugby world.
‘We are not champion now’
France number eight Gregory Alldritt: “It was a massive game for our team today and I am proud to be French tonight.
“The support was massive and it is just fantastic to get support like this. We are just looking forward to the next game, but we said if we lost today it is not the end of the World Cup.
“But we are not champion now so we just have to keep working and go step by step.”
France head coach Fabien Galthie: “There was a lot of pressure in the first half. It took us time to relax and they scored quickly and easily.”We lost Julien Marchand early on. It was the worst possible scenario and even if we were ahead at the break, we did not control the game. But then we took back control.”
New Zealand head coach Ian Foster: “It was a hell of an opening match, everything we expected. We fired some good bullets at them, we just didn’t fire enough. It doesn’t change much for us, we just have to find another way out of this pool.”
Former England fly-half Paul Grayson on BBC Radio 5 Live: “When it mattered in the second half, France got it right. They dominated possession in the second half and you felt certain at some point they would come up with something to make the difference. They make very few mistakes.”
France: Ramos, Penaud, Fickou, Falatea-Moefana, Villiere, Jalibert, Dupont, Wardi, Marchand, Atonio, Woki, Flament, Cros, Ollivon, Alldritt.
Replacements: Jaminet for Ramos (76), Vincent for Falatea-Moefana (58), Lucu for Dupont (76), Gros for Wardi (53), Mauvaka for Marchand (12), Taofifenua for Woki (49), Boudehent for Cros (63). Not Used: Aldegheri.
New Zealand: B. Barrett, Jordan, Ioane, Liernert-Brown, Telea, Mo’unga, Smith; De Groot, Taylor, Laulala, Whitelock, S. Barrett, Papali’i, Vaa’i, Savea.
Replacements: Havili for Liernert-Brown (63), Fainga’anuku for Telea (72), Christie for Smith (63), Tu’ungafasi for de Groot (53), Taukeiaho for Taylor (57), Newell for Laulala (53). Not Used: Jacobson.
Sin Bin: Jordan (58)