France, Ireland start with wins; Georgia sinks Tonga


France stayed on course with Pool D rival Ireland in winning its opening match at the Rugby World Cup against an ill-disciplined Italy 32-10 at Twickenham on Saturday.

France and Ireland are expected to play for the pool win, and a supposedly easier quarterfinal, on the last weekend of pool play in three weeks. Ireland began its run hours earlier with a 50-7 stroll over Canada, while France took care of its tougher Six Nations mate at the cost of winger Yoann Huget, who may have done in his right knee ligaments.

“It’s very important that we started with a win, and we knew how tough Italy were,” France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. “We wanted four tries but Italy defended well. We have a win, but a bad injury.”

Italy also suffered, as center Andrea Masi lasted only 23 minutes at his fourth Rugby World, carried off with reportedly an Achilles injury.

Like Canada did for Ireland, Italy practically gifted the win.

The Twickenham crowd of 76,232 sounded and looked like Paris or Rome for only the second match between France and Italy away from their homelands, but the French among them were given more reasons to cheer.

Italy conceded 11 penalties in the first half, on average of one every four minutes. Seven were in kicking distance and France took five of them; four to flyhalf Freddy Michalak to pass 400 points in tests, and one by fullback Scott Spedding from inside his own half.

Italy’s bellwether scrum was not only impressively crushed by France’s, but it leaked too many penalties. Coach Jacques Brunel blamed referee Craig Joubert.

“We’ve had 12 scrums in all, and we’ve been penalized six times, and five on our put-in,” Brunel said. “(This) leaves us with quite a bitter taste in the mouth.”

By halftime, France’s lead of 15-3 was too much to overcome by an Italy whose talismanic captain Sergio Parisse remained at home recovering from a bad leg hematoma, still in doubt of making his fourth Cup.

Jonathan Sexton displayed his full repertoire of skills in Ireland’s win over Canada, before being taken off in the 55th minute as a precaution for bigger fights ahead.

That was enough time for him to pass 500 points in international rugby — and enough time to earn the man-of-the-match award under the roof at Millennium Stadium. Not a bad start to the World Cup for European rugby’s premier No. 10.

Canada coach Kieran Crowley — a World Cup winner with the All Blacks in 1987 — went even further.

“Any team in the world would be happy to have him in their side,” Crowley said. “He’s not one of the most well-paid rugby players in the world for nothing, is he?”

Sexton won’t have this much time and space in every game at the World Cup, and there’s a chance he will now be rested by Ireland — certainly against Romania next up — before pool deciders against Italy and France.

Aside from a kick into touch on the full, and a couple of misplaced passes, Sexton was flawless. The crowning glory was his 28th-minute try in which he took an inside pass and showed a turn of pace down the left to ground in the corner.

Elsewhere, Georgia earned a significant edge in the race to third place in Pool C when it manhandled Tonga 17-10 at Kingsholm.

The two are in the same pool as New Zealand and Argentina, and targeted this match as soon as the draw was made last year as winnable.

For the Lelos, as Georgia are known, it was only their third win at their fourth Rugby World Cup. It may yet help them finish their pool in third, at least, and automatically qualify for the 2019 tournament in Japan.

“It was so much pressure, we had a huge team to hold off, we defended like mad men, it was amazing,” said fullback Merab Kvirikashvili, who finished the match in the sin bin with a share of Georgia’s caps record of 85.