Pool A preview: France v Tonga
France will bid to put rumours of internal strife to bed in bagging the one point from their final 2011 World Cup pool match against Tonga on Saturday that will see them progress to the quarterfinals.
The French grabbed a maximum 10 points from their openers against Japan and Canada, but were then soundly beaten 37-17 by New Zealand.
Tonga, who beat Japan but went down to Canada and the All Blacks, can mathematically still make it through to the last eight if they score four tries and win by more than seven points, denying France a bonus point.
In echoes of Raymond Domenech's ill-fated campaign at last year's football World Cup, France coach Marc Lievremont has found himself fending off reports of a potential player mutiny and at odds with French journalists covering the team.
But the French have a realistic path to the final at Eden Park on October 23 with a likely quarterfinal against England followed by a semifinal against another Six Nations team.
Lievremont, who played flank in the French team that reached the 1999 World Cup Final, selected a team for the Tonga match that he said would be very close to the one he has in mind for the quarterfinals, should they advance.
Regular scrumhalf Morgan Parra has been confirmed at flyhalf and Maxime Medard takes over from Damien Traille at fullback.
William Servat replaces Dimitri Szarzewski at hooker while No.8 Raphael Lakafia comes in for Louis Picamoles, with Alexis Palisson dropping in at wing in place of Medard.
"Being consistent is a good thing for us. With Morgan Parra and Maxime Mermoz, we are starting to gel and work well together and it is vital," said centre Aurelien Rougerie.
"We talk a lot, which is good in order to compensate our relative lack of experience together in those three positions.
"Chances are it'll be a loose game because the Tongans are also after a qualification spot, or even a third place in order to secure their berth in the next World Cup."
The French will once again be without prop Nicolas Mas who has yet to fully recover from a hamstring strain, but fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, who has been named on the bench, has been given the all-clear after receiving a blow to the head when scoring a try against the All Blacks.
Captain Finau Maka, a long-time player in the French Top 14, was recalled for the Tonga team as one of four changes his brother Isitolo made to the team that beat Japan 31-18 last week.
Maka takes over from Sione Vaiomo'unga at openside, the only other change in the pack being the experienced Kisi Pulu going at tighthead instead of Taufa'ao Filise.
There are also two changes in the backs, Viliame Iongi coming in for Fetu'u Vainikolo on the right wing and Andrew Ma'ilei taking over a centre berth from Alipate Fatafehi, who drops to the bench.
"To me it's a good thing just knowing their danger players and where their weaknesses are. We know quite a lot about their players so it helps a lot," Maka said, pinpointing the midfield as France's main weak point.
"I think maybe their centres [Maxime Mermoz and Aurelien Rougerie] are quite weak, just because I think Rougerie's not a centre, and he and Maxime haven't played together for a long time.
"Also maybe their front row [Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat and Luc Ducalcon]. We can target their scrum."
Players to Watch:
For France: You simply can't look past the halfback positions, where two scrumhalves - Morgan Parra and Dimitri Yachvili - feature in the No.10 and No.9 jerseys respectively. But big runners like Maxime Médard, Vincent Clerc, Aurélien Rougerie and Maxime Mermoz can cause some untold damage on the scoreboard if their forwards come to the party.
For Tonga: The return of Finau Maka, not to mention that he also has the captaincy armband, will mean the spotlight will be firmly on the controversial loose forward. But the key players are flyhalf Kurt Morath and scrumhalf Taniela Moa.
Head to Head: You have the intriguing battle between flanks Thierry Dusautoir (France) and Sione Kalamafoni (Tonga), who will be key elements in a game where the breakdown could easily swing the game. Tonga's biggest battle will be in the set pieces, especially the scrums - where Luc Ducalcon, William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Poux (France) will look to dominate Kisi Pulu, Aleki Lutui and Soane Tonga'uiha (Tonga).
2005: France won 43-8 in Toulouse
1999: Tonga won 20-16 in Nuku A'lofa
1995: France won 38-10 in Pretoria (World Cup pool match)
Prediction: Tonga can win, they have the skill and enthusiasm to cause just such an upset. However, the smart money will be on the French to book their place in the quarterfinals. We feel France will win by 15 points or more.
France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Morgan Parra, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Raphael Lakafia, 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (captain), 5 Lionel Nallet, 4 Pascal Pape, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Julien Pierre, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Francois Trinh-Duc, 21 Fabrice Estebanez, 22 Cédric Heymans.
Tonga: 15 Vungakoto Lilo, 14 Viliame Iongi, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Andrew Ma'ilei, 11 Sukanaivalu Hufanga, 10 Kurt Morath, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Finau Maka (captain), 6 Sione Kalamafoni, 5 Paino Hehea, 4 Tukulua Lokotui, 3 Kisi Pulu, 2 Aleki Lutui, 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Ephraim Taukafa, 17 Alisona Taumalolo, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Joseph Tuineau, 20 Samiu Vahafolau, 21 Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Alipate Fatafehi.
Date: Saturday, October 1
Venue: Regional Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 18.00 (05.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Fine weather with some northerly 'breezes'. High of 17°C, low of 9°C
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Dave Pearson (England), Carlo Damasco (Italy)
TMO: Matt Goddard (Australia)
AFP & rugby365.com