WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Vincent Clerc's last-ditch try secured for France a World Cup quarterfinal against England despite an upset 19-14 loss to Tonga in a bruising encounter on Saturday night.
Tonga dominated a disheveled France and led 19-9 until Clerc's fifth try of the tournament — clinically taken in the right corner — deep in stoppage time. But the Tongans failed to score the four tries they needed for a bonus point to reach the quarterfinals for the first time.
"Rarely has a qualification tasted so bitter," France coach Marc Lievremont said. "The weight of my words will count for a lot tonight and the rest of this week."
Tonga coach Isitolo Maka expects the win will have set off an explosion of joy in the tiny Pacific kingdom.
"For us to beat France tonight is very special," he said. "It's good for Tongan rugby and for all our people who have supported us all the way."
Because France lost by less than eight points it got the bonus point it needed to ensure second place in Pool A, regardless of whether Canada causes an upset against New Zealand on Sunday on the same ground.
"We played really bad rugby," France captain Thierry Dusautoir said. "If we play like this we're not going to have any chance of making the semifinals."
Unless Canada pulls off an even bigger shock on Sunday in the same Wellington Regional Stadium, Tonga will finish third in the pool and be guaranteed a place in the 2015 World Cup.
"They played with heart, they played with urgency," Dusautoir said, praising Tonga.
Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath landed four penalties, while scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili landed three for France.
But Tonga may have done better running more, rather than turning to Morath.
"Towards the end, we knew we couldn't score three tries in eight minutes and it was important for us to win the game first," Maka said. "That's what we did, we decided to kick goals and not go for tries. The main thing for us was to try and win the game."
Winger Suka Hufanga scored Tonga's only try following a breakdown in communication in France's midfield, and only a combination of dropped passes, knock-ons, and poor judgement prevented more tries as France held on in one of its worst ever World Cup performances.
"We couldn't get anything going at all," France flanker Julien Bonnaire said. "I don't think we can do any worse."
Lievremont's team had to play with a man less when replacement centre Fabrice Estebanez was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the 65th minute, and the pressure should have yielded more for Tonga.
With a little under seven minutes left, Tonga still needed three tries, but if Samiu Vahafolau had made the right pass rather than trying to bulldoze through fullback Maxime Medard, the nervous French could well have capitulated.
Yachvili settled the nerves with a penalty straight down the middle in the second minute, with most of the 32,763 fans screaming for Tonga.
France prop Jean-Baptiste Poux was bloodied to the head in the early exchanges, setting the scene for what was a sometimes rough match featuring two yellow cards, with Tonga also temporarily losing Hufanga late in the first half for a dangerous tackle on Clerc.
Within minutes of Yachvili's penalty, Morath pulled Tonga level from the left, but his kicking proved wayward after that.
When France centre Aurelien Rougerie broke through a couple of tackles but offloaded the ball to a Tongan, the error was indicative of a scrappy opening 20 minutes punctuated by rushed passes, spilled catches and hopeful punts.
After No. 8 Raphael Lakafia was held up near the line, Tonga infringed again to give Yachvili an easy kick in front of the posts to make it 6-3.
Tonga captain Finau Maka taunted France in the buildup to the match by saying its centres were the weak link, and the opening try stemmed from careless French passes.
Morath seized on the loose ball and placed a perfectly weighted kick into the right corner for Hufanga. He palmed away Bonnaire's tackle, spun and placed the ball in the corner. Morath converted from a narrow angle for 10-6.
Only desperate defence on the line prevented France hooker William Servat getting the ball through a forest of Tongan legs, then Morath nailed another penalty. But Tonga needed tries, and its momentum stalled when Hufanga was sin-binned.
Even with the extra man, France looked in trouble as Tonga pressured from the beginning of the second half.
Unable to generate any attacking momentum, France kicked aimlessly, with makeshift flyhalf Morgan Parra and Yachvili both failing to find touch, while Francois Trinh-Duc, the first-choice flyhalf, sat on the bench.
Parra, a scrumhalf until Lievremont decided to make him a No. 10 against the All Blacks, tackled gamely but lacked organizational skills and his backs suffered.
Yachvili's steady boot kept France within touching distance when he landed a 40-meter kick for 13-9.
With 20 minutes remaining, Lievremont finally sent on Trinh-Duc, but France simply could not get out of its half and Tonga winger Viliame Iongi burst down the line and was held up just short.
Estebanez went on for Rougerie but did his teammates no favours when he was sin-binned and Morath slotted for 16-9.
Iongi knocked on again with 10 minutes left as France's weak flank was exposed yet again, but with France seemingly unable to stop making mistakes — this time it was Dusautoir who got offside — Morath made it 19-9.
Clerc's 30th international try and 10th in the World Cup spared some embarrassment.
Tonga 19 (Suka Hufanga try; Kurt Morath 4 penalties, conversion), France 14 (Vincent Clerc try; Dimitri Yachvili 3 penalties). HT: 13-6.