CASTRES, FRANCE – A pair of red cards for fighting in Saturday’s game between France and Tonga now looks like small potatoes in a week that has seen six Australian rugby stars given detention for a late-night drinking session in Dublin.
Former England manager Martin Johnson famously defended an ill-advised night out for his side at the 2011 World Cup with a sardonic and almost equally ill-advised “rugby player likes a drink – shock” comment at a press conference. The fallout from that may have been in the back of Aussie rugby bosses’ minds as they doled out the six suspensions – and warned nine others about their future conduct.
There’s no doubt, either, that the one-fall, no-submissions scrap between Perpignan prop Sona Taumalolo and Toulouse lock Yoann Maestri early in the second half in Le Havre justified the straight reds doled out by referee Glen Jackson.
It’s just a shame, that – rather like the Australians’ behaviour – this few seconds of indiscipline has dominated the headlines, rather than the entertaining game that broke out for the remainder of the 80 minutes.
And the two teams’ roles were a near-reversal of France’s previous match against New Zealand. In the first of their November internationals, France enjoyed the bulk of possession, but lost to a much more clinical side that took all the chances that came their way while Les Bleus squandered several scoring opportunities.
After a slow start at Le Havre, which allowed the hosts to race into an 8-0 lead, Tonga enjoyed long periods of possession, with bulky centres Siale Piutau and Sione Piukala in particular doing their line-breaking best to keep the French defence honest.
But, by the time Fetu’u Vainikolo crossed the French try line for the first of his two tries for the visitors, Sofiane Guitoune, Damien Chouly and Brice Dulin had all touched down for the home side – to the delight of the crowd at Le Havre. Benjamin Kayser would also later score for Les Bleus as Philippe Saint-Andre’s side recorded a 38-18 victory that was – on the balance of probability – deserved.
Saint-Andre has recalled Thomas Domingo and Louis Picamoles to the squad for Saturday’s visit of South Africa to cover for Maestri, who is likely to be suspended for his part in that unedifying scrap, and Montpellier’s Ouedraogo, who was injured in the physical encounter in Le Havre.
Otherwise, expect more of the same from an apparently rejuvenated France, for whom Morgan Parra and Remi Tales are threatening to form a dangerous halfback pairing that could be key to French hopes in next year’s Six Nations. It’s a pretty safe bet that the coaches of the five other nations in the competition are keeping a close eye on the pair.
Also expect more than a few scrum resets as two pretty hefty packs try to keep their footing on Stade de France’s frankly unfit-for-purpose pitch…