Second-string France Struggles to Beat Feisty Uruguay at Rugby World Cup

AP Photo/Thibault Camus
France’s Gabin Villiere, right, challenges during the Rugby World Cup Pool A match between France and Uruguay at the Pierre Mauroy stadium in Villeneuve-d’Ascq, near Lille, France, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.

LILLE, France (AP) — A week after France was lionized for dispatching New Zealand, its second string was whistled and booed after a second-rate win against Uruguay on Thursday.

While the underwhelming 27-12 result moved France closer to the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, the performance was a step backwards in the face of a spirited Uruguay which fought magnificently.

The 49,000 spectators at Stade Pierre Mauroy, more accustomed to soccer than rugby in this northern part of France, made their displeasure at France’s performance heard.

Coach Fabien Galthie changed 12 of the starting XV who defeated three-time champion New Zealand in Paris, but the replacements did not rise to the occasion. They were denied a four-tries bonus point.

We were surprised (by Uruguay), Galthie said. “And then you have doubts. It’s the type of match we call ‘trap matches.’ You have to put the right ingredients in the right place at the right time — maybe we got things a bit mixed up.”

The backline was cramped by Uruguay’s defense, the maul was ineffective and the scrum won penalties at the start but was conceding them by the finish. Uruguay outhustled the host. France gave away only five penalties to New Zealand but 15 to Los Teros.

It’s unacceptable at international level. We’re lucky to win this match with 15 penalties, lock Cameron Woki said. “I thought we’d done a lot of work on discipline. There’s a lot of frustration. We respected them, but we weren’t able to play our game. We weren’t patient.”

Uruguay’s second try had it trailing only 13-12 after 53 minutes, and France went further ahead thanks only to a large slice of luck. Uruguay flyhalf Felipe Etcheverry clearance-kicked into a teammate and France replacement Peato Mauvaka collected the ball and scored.

France’s third and last try by unmarked wing Louis Bielle-Biarrey, who became the youngest Frenchman to play at a World Cup at 20, sealed the result late and a record-extending 16th straight win at home. But Los Teros fought to the end and France finished under a yellow card warning.

This was the first ever test between the teams and Uruguay — which qualified as Americas 1 — fielded one of its most experienced sides, with 11 starters from the 2019 World Cup and five who play for clubs in France. They were not intimidated, and were inspired by the presence of President Luis Lacalle Pou.

We are really proud of what we’ve done against one of the best teams, which is among the favorites for the title, Uruguay coach Esteban Meneses said. “We fought toe to toe, we brought passion.”

Melvyn Jaminet booted the first points from a scrum penalty, but he was caught cold three minutes later when he couldn’t reach an Etcheverry cross-field kick and wing Nicolas Freitas collected the ball to score the opening try and silence the stadium.

France regrouped quickly. Yoram Moefana’s dummy run from a scrum hesitated the Uruguayans long enough for flyhalf Antoine Hastoy to angle in for 10-5.

France looked like it would enjoy a comfortable evening. It monopolized the ball and deployed attacks at ease. Jaminet’s second penalty made it 13-5 after 16 minutes.

But then France lock Romain Taofifenua was sin-binned for a shoulder-led hit on Santiago Arata’s head. He appeared fortunate to be carded only a yellow, but it changed the momentum.

France mistakes compounded and Etcheverry scored beside the posts. But the try was canceled because of obstruction.

Uruguay was emboldened, though.

More set-piece errors by France seemed to be compensated when Gabin Villiere scored, but that was canceled by a knock on.

Uruguay made no mistake though when fullback Baltazar Amaya stepped Arthur Vincent and slipped Jaminet to score and Etcheverry converted from the sideline.

Uruguay trailed by one point, and the French crowd was booing.

Mauvaka got a lucky rebound to settle the crowd somewhat and Bielle-Biarrey let the fans breathe a lot easier with his 72nd-minute try. Jaminet also converted that to finish with 12 points.

France next faces Namibia, while Uruguay gave Italy fair warning of what’s coming next Wednesday. Said captain Andres Vilaseca, “This is only the beginning for us.”