FUKUOKA – France ran in three late tries against the United States on Wednesday to earn a vital bonus point with an erratic 33-9 win.
Les Bleus were leading by just 12-9 with 13 minutes to go before Gael Fickou, Baptiste Serin and Jefferson Poirot dotted down to secure victory against the underdog Eagles, who suffered a second straight loss in Japan.
It was the type of inconsistent performance followers of French rugby have seen all too frequently — breathtaking flair let down by a raft of handling errors.
But the bonus point keeps the pressure up on old enemy England, which plays Argentina on Saturday in another clash of Pool C heavyweights.
France looked sharp at the outset, an incisive break by flyhalf Camille Lopez slicing open the U.S. midfield after just two minutes.
And Les Bleus were on the scoreboard four minutes later, a counter-attacking move ending in a sublime Lopez chip for winger Yoann Huget to dot down for a scintillating try.
U.S. coach Gary Gold had called on his players to improve “every aspect” of their game after they went down to England 45-7 and the Eagles held their own for the first quarter, as AJ MacGinty scored a penalty after some pressure on the French line.
But France extended its advantage after 24 minutes when Lopez’s perfectly judged cross-field kick found Alivereti Raka in space on the right-hand touchline for a simple try.
The United States stayed in the contest and slotted another penalty on the half-hour mark, again the consequence of some sustained forward pressure as France lost its flow.
Huget’s try aside, it was a patchy first-half performance from Les Bleus, with a prematch downpour and humid conditions making handling difficult.
France had a chance to register a third try when Sofiane Guitoune burst through on a mazy run but his long pass to Raka was adjudged forward.
Frustration grew for France as the handling errors increased and coach Jacques Brunel brought on a wealth of experience from the bench.
The only time the United States had ever beaten France in a 15-a-side match was in the 1924 Olympics — the last time rugby XVs featured in the games — but they came within three points with MacGinty’s third penalty.
With the French supporters in the crowd starting to get nervous, center Fickou put some daylight between the two sides, crashing over from short range for a try converted by Lopez to give the favorites a 19-9 lead.
And just two minutes later, Serin put the result beyond doubt with a try that again was created by another cross-field kick to Raka.
With the Eagles tiring and the clock running down, prop Poirot put the icing on the cake with a catch-and-drive pushover.
It was only the second time the two teams have met in a World Cup — France won the only other match 41-14 in 2003.
Next up for France is a match-up with the physical Tongans on Oct. 6, before “Le Crunch” with England in Yokohama that may decide who tops the group and earns a quarterfinal clash against likely opponent Australia.