KUMAMOTO – France withstood a furious Tonga fightback to grind into the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday 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 sent Tonga crashing out of the tournament with three successive defeats, while also sending Pool C rivals Argentina and the United States packing.
In a clash of unrelenting drama, flanker Zane Kapeli collected a cross-kick for a last-gasp try and Latiume Fosita's conversion put the Tongans within two points with just 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 kick, giving France crucial possession to hold on to victory.
Tonga, whose 19-14 win over Les Bleus in New Zealand eight years ago remains a fairytale chapter in World Cup folklore, battled hard right to the finish and for a while it seemed there could be a repeat of the wonder in Wellington.
But flyhalf Romain Ntamack played a decisive role, steering two penalties between the posts to give the French a cushion that proved just sufficient.
Before that, it was the flair and enterprise of Virimi Vakatawa and Alivereti Raka whose first-half tries gave France a quick start.
Having cemented second place in the pool behind England, three-times finalists France will now head to Yokohama seeking victory in "Le Crunch" over Eddie Jones's men for a kinder route through the knockout rounds.
While France had laboured to a 33-9 win over the United States in their last start on Wednesday, they were switched on from the first whistle.
Bolting to a 10-0 lead after six minutes, Raka burst away from a botched Tongan lineout before off-loading to centre Vakatawa for France's first try.
A missed penalty kick by Ntamack some 10 minutes later preceded an almost inevitable French lull, with handling errors and passes floating forward and wide to thwart a string of promising attacking moves.
Their defence remained solid, though, and France raised the pressure before scrumhalf 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.
#FRAvTGA VICTOIRE ! 💪🇫🇷 Match difficile et intense jusqu’à là fin, mais les Bleus se sont battus jusqu’au bout et se qualifient pour les 1/4 de finale ! #XVdeFrance