Hosts France underlined their Rugby World Cup credentials with a sizzling 27-13 victory against New Zealand, handing the three-time champions their first defeat during a pool phase in a nail-biting, high-paced curtain raiser on Friday.
Les Bleus brought the Stade de France to the boil after a timid first half, turning on the style when it mattered to make a giant leap towards securing top spot in Pool A.
They scored two tries through Damian Penaud and Melvyn Jaminet while the boot of fullback Thomas Ramos made the difference with 17 points.
The All Blacks, beaten for the first time in 32 World Cup pool games, had two Mark Telea tries and a sole penalty by Richie Mo’unga to show for themselves.
France, who had to deal with Romain Ntamack and Paul Willemse being ruled of the tournament injured, next face Uruguay in Lille on Thursday while New Zealand take on Namibia in Toulouse the next day.
With a seemingly comfortable three pool games left before the quarter-finals, France will have time to nurse some injuries, with centre Jonathan Danty expected to make his return while hooker Julien Marchand, who was taken out early on, will need to undergo some tests.
“We think it’s a thigh muscle injury. It’s too early to say anything more,” coach Fabien Galthie said.
“We felt there was a lot of pressure in the first half, it took, us time to relax and they scored quickly and easily. 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.”
While Les Bleus seemed to be on the back foot with very few chances early on, they were just lying in wait in the Parisian humidity, leaving their opponents wasting energy with repeated runs in the suffocating heat.
Galthie’s side abandoned possession in the opening half before turning on the engine after the break, finally showing the kind of high-octane rugby that has put them back on the map in the last four years.
Sixteen years after losing their opening World Cup game as hosts against Argentina, France rose to the occasion, beating the All Blacks for the second time in a row.
The result leaves Ian Foster’s team with a lot of questions to answer and doubts to shake off following their record loss against South Africa last month.
“It was a hell of an opening match, everything we expected,” said Foster. “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.”
Galthie, who was in the side that produced a monumental comeback in one of the game’s greatest encounters to knock New Zealand out 43-31 in the 1999 semi-finals, wanted a big party on home soil but it took his players time to get into their groove.
As the opening ceremony showed a long series of lighthearted cliches celebrating France’s ‘art de vivre’ and French president Emmanuel Macron was being booed by the crowd as he declared the competition opened, New Zealand took captain Sam Cane out of the starting lineup after he picked up a back injury on Thursday.
Tupou Vaa’i was promoted from the bench with Dalton Papali’i replacing Cane at openside flanker and it did not seem to derail the visitors.
New Zealand were quick to silence a buoyant crowd as Teala dotted down after one minute and 34 seconds, having collected a clever cross-kick from Beauden Barrett on the bounce.
Ramos put France ahead with two penalties but the hosts had yet to have a sniff at the try-line and they lost hooker Marchand early on.
New Zealand were on the brink of the line again and surprisingly opted for the kick when France were penalised. Mo’unga slotted the penalty in as the All Blacks went 8-6 ahead, but the margin did not reflect their domination.
While France seemed to be on the verge of cracking, Ramos put them in front again with a 50-metre penalty in a tactical, arm-wrestling contest.
France started the second half with a more playful mindset but were punished right away for their defensive nonchalance.
Seeing a huge gap, Rieko Ioane kicked the ball into the path of Telea, who finished it off unchallenged to restore New Zealand’s advantage.
Les Bleus were suddenly fired up though and Penaud, after coming up just short, touched down in the right corner for his 30th international try from a superbly-timed pass by Matthieu Jalibert after the flyhalf evaded a tackle from Ardie Savea.
The momentum had definitely swung in the hosts’ favour as Willie Jordan was sin-binned for taking Penaud out in the air.
Ramos scored his fourth and fifth penalties to extend France’s lead to nine points and replacement fullback Jaminet started the party with a try from a bouncing ball.