Pumas stun France in World Cup opener
September 7, 2007
Ignacio Corleto celebrates after scoring the match-winning try for Argentina
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Argentina produced a superb defensive display to beat hosts France 17-12 in the Rugby World Cup opener at the Stade de France in Paris. World Cup hosts France face a fight to reach the tournament's knockout stages after being outplayed by the Pumas in front of a stunned capacity crowd.
Full-back Igancio Corleto scored a try and centre Felipe Contepomi kicked four penalties to leave Les Bleus shell-shocked. France must now effectively beat Pool D rivals Ireland at Stade de France in two weeks' time, or they are unlikely to progress.
Four David Skrela penalties proved insufficient to unsettle the Pumas, who can now march on in confident fashion as France were booed off. Les Bleus suffered a nightmare opening 40 minutes at Stade de France as the Pumas swept clear through full-back Ignacio Corleto's interception try and four Felipe Contepomi penalties.
The host nation had little to offer, relying on three David Skrela penalties for their points during a half dominated by Argentina. Buoyed by World Cup warm-up victories over England (twice) and Wales, the French paraded a team packed with experience at the Stade de France.
Wasps hooker Raphael Ibanez skippered a side that also included Test cap centurion Fabien Pelous, with flanker Serge Betsen and number eight Imanol Harinordoquy adding further clout up-front. Paris-based Pumas captain Agustin Pichot equalled the Argentine record held by lock of Pedro Sporleder by starting his fourth World Cup campaign.
And Pichot was joined at half-back by Stade Francais colleague Juan Martin Hernandez, tipped by England's 2003 World Cup skipper Martin Johnson as a potential tournament star. English referee Tony Spreadbury took charge of the Pool D clash, which followed a 40-minute opening ceremony that generated a white-hot atmosphere.
Skrela launched the 20-team tournament into action, but his opposite number Hernandez replied confidently, rifling a 50-metre kick into touch deep inside the French half. And it was the Pumas who drew first blood when centre Felipe Contepomi slotted a 35-metre penalty after the French forwards pulled down a maul.
The lead lasted just two minutes, with Skrela equalising from short range, yet Argentina looked far more confident with ball in hand and a second Contepomi penalty made it 6-3. France, in contrast, were nervy and fractious, finding themselves starved of possession until a pulsating counter-attack almost produced a breathtaking try after Betsen's crunching tackle on Contepomi.
A sweeping move had Argentina's defence scampering to all parts as France fired a first warning signal at them. The game was a fast and furious affair, and a French midfield blunder saw Argentina regain their initial attacking platform as home centre Damien Traille left the field with blood seeping from a head wound.
Frederic Michalak took his place to a rapturous reception, but Argentina continued pressing and France continued to find themselves hassled and harried in all phases. Contepomi drifted a 21st-minute drop-goal attempt narrowly wide, yet France couldn't get out of their own 22.
Had Argentina's finishing matched their approach play, then the hosts would undoubtedly have found themselves comfortably adrift on the scoreboard. Contepomi, though, then completed his penalty hat-trick for a 9-3 advantage, and worse was soon to follow for France.
Traille, back on the field instead of Michalak, burst clear in midfield and found flanker Remy Martin in support, but his pass was intercepted. Wing Horacio Agulla found full-back Corleto sprinting up on his outside and he stormed clear for a spectacular try.
Contepomi's conversion attempt struck the post, and although Skrela kicked his second penalty nine minutes before the break, France remained in deep strife. Lock Rimas Alvarez-Kairelis replaced injured Argentina lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, and Contepomi's fourth penalty - from a metre inside his own half - made it 17-6 before Skrela found the target again.
Laporte made a double switch on 60 minutes, replacing Ibanez with Dimitri Szarzewski and sending on Sale Sharks powerhouse Sebastien Chabal instead of Pelous. Argentina did not have similar power in reserve on the bench, and Michalak returned to the action when he took over from a limping Skrela.
Chabal's arrival gave France much-needed momentum, yet Argentina almost struck another breakaway blow when Corleto scorched away, but his low inside pass failed to find Contepomi. Like Chabal, Michalak offered a cool head as pressure grew on the home side, but Argentina had no intention of letting their lead slip.
Ahead since the fifth minute, Argentina should have seen their advantage reduced to two points, but Michalak failed to find the target with a 25-metre penalty. The closing minutes were nerve-shredding from both teams' perspective, but Argentina did just enough to spark scenes of wild celebration.
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