CASTRES, FRANCE – Arrogance cost France dearly against Argentina. Arrogance, along with frustrating inconsistency, inaccurate kicking, a lack of aggression, and the boot of Toulon-based fly-half Nicolás Sánchez, who kicked 15 of the Pumas’ 18 points as they won a tight encounter at Stade de France.
France came into the game in buoyant mood after successive wins over Fiji and Australia had added a glister of what was starting to look a little like gold to their international year.
The widely predicted victory over Argentina would give them an better-than 50% win ratio for 2014 – a long way from brilliant, some distance from good enough, but still a vast improvement on 2013; and a faint beacon of hope heading into a World Cup year.
Argentina, meanwhile, after that first Rugby Championship win over Australia, had stumbled in Europe. They had lost to Scotland and only narrowly beat Italy. Their role in Saint Denis was set to be that of plucky losers, as France finally consigned that embarrassing 2007 World Cup defeat to history.
But the visitors hadn’t read that script – and closed out their European tour with a second win, their fifth in nine matches over Les Bleus.
They had scored 15 points before Camille Lopez put France on the scoreboard shortly before halftime. And only a last-gasp tackle that forced Juan Imhoff’s foot into touch just before he grounded the ball had denied them the try that their effort and skill had genuinely deserved.
Sánchez opened the scoring in the second minute, punishing France for holding on in a ruck. He doubled the Pumas’ lead quarter of an hour later with his first of three drop goals on the night, after Lopez – so consistent against Australia a week ago – had fired a kickable penalty wide of the uprights.
Scott Spedding also missed a shot at goal, hitting the upright from distance.
The French crept offside to give him the chance to add another three points shortly before the half-hour. He punished them for it, and then he and Juan Martín Hernández both fired over the two of Argentina’s four drops in the game.
France, meanwhile, turned down two kickable penalties in favour of kicks to touch as they looked to damn Argentina’s defiance in a blitz of tries.
It was a desperate, arrogant plan. And it failed. Captain Thierry Dusautoir knocked on from the line-out that followed the first “penaltouche” to give Argentina the put-in to the first scrum of the match after 32 minutes, while the second ended in another penalty that France, belatedly, opted to kick. It was the penalty that finally put the hosts on the scoreboard, three minutes before halftime.
Sánchez’s radar went briefly awry and he missed a penalty kick five minutes into the second half. Two minutes later, however, he nailed his third drop goal of the night to take the score to 18-3.
France, who – on top of their arrogance – had been guilty of an almost total lack of aggression in the opening 40, suddenly found from somewhere the will to up the ante.
Rory Kockott replaced Sebastien Tillous-Borde early in the second period. The Bok-Coq missed a long-range penalty but his pop pass from a ruck close to the line was perfectly picked up by a flying Wesley Fofana, who thundered through the Pumas’ defence to score the only try of the game shortly before the hour.
Lopez converted to make the score 18-10 with 20 minutes to play. Four minutes later, Kockott landed a penalty to take the score to 18-13, and France were in the ascendancy.
But the Pumas’ will would not be broken.
Roared on by the re-energised French faithful – who had earlier booed and jeered their side – Philippe Saint-Andre’s Bleus hunted down the score that would snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
And, when Spedding latched on to another perfect Kockott pass to barge his way over the line after the hooter had sounded, it looked like they may just have managed it. But, the referee ruled the never-say-die Argentinien defenders had stopped him from grounding the ball.
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