South Africa captain Siya Kolisi takes a selfie with fans as the reigning champions prepare for the defence of their title (Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA)
France made an impressive start to their attempt to win a first Rugby World Cup as the host nation beat New Zealand 27-13 in a hot and humid tournament opener on Friday.
Roared on by a capacity crowd at the Stade de France, Thomas Ramos nervelessly kicked 17 points and Damian Penaud and Melvyn Jaminet scored a try each.
Mark Telea touched down twice for the All Blacks and it was only after Ramos’ 74th minute penalty that the home fans could celebrate before the rampant white-shirted French scored a final try as Jaminet grabbed Maxime Lucu’s chip.
France fought hard to prove that their tag as one of the favourites on home soil is well-deserved.
“It was important to begin well by winning even if it was not a knockout match,” France head coach Fabien Galthie said.
“It was the culmination of our work before the tournament.”
It was a successful start on the field to what will be a key test of France’s organisational skills ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, especially after the chaos that blighted last year’s football Champions League final at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris.
With the Olympics less than a year away, French authorities are under scrutiny to prove they have learned from the mistakes during the football showpiece between Liverpool and Real Madrid.
– Loaded half of draw –
The World Cup is widely expected to provide a feast of attacking rugby.
Before the tournament, the bookmakers could barely separate reigning champions South Africa, the world’s number one side Ireland, France and the enigmatic All Blacks, although Friday’s performance will only serve to shorten the French odds.
By a quirk of the draw made three years ago, all four have been loaded into the same half, meaning at least two will be eliminated before the semi-final stage.
That gives misfiring England, Wales and Australia hope they could play themselves into contention before the business end of the competition in late October.
England, World Cup winners in 2003 but with unusually low expectations in this tournament, rumble into action on Saturday when they face Argentina in Marseille.
South Africa begin their campaign against a tough Scotland side on Sunday.
Argentina revel in their role as outsiders and will believe they can add rugby’s highest accolade to the football World Cup they claimed last year in Qatar — when they beat France in the final.
France have been runners-up three times, but came into the tournament on a wave of expectation.
They went through 2022 unbeaten, claiming a Six Nations Grand Slam, and beating all three of their major tournament rivals, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa in the same calendar year.
On Friday, they kept their nerve as the All Blacks stayed neck-and-neck with them, before the French pulled away at the end.
Captain and scrum-half Antoine Dupont, one of rugby’s outstanding talents, said his team were just getting going.
“We know we’re capable of doing better,” he said.
Around 2.5 million rugby fans are expected to attend World Cup fixtures across nine venues in France, including 600,000 from abroad.
Excitement was high with thousands of people gathered at a fan zone in the southwest rugby stronghold of Toulouse to watch the match against the All Blacks on giant screens.
There were similar scenes in Paris and Marseille while towns around the country held smaller watch parties.
The early stages of the tournament will be played in unseasonal heat, with the temperature at kickoff on Friday around 29 degrees Celsius (84 degrees Fahrenheit).
Players will be allowed to take drinks in breaks in each of the halves, as they did at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.