France survived a potential humiliation with a flattering 47-21 victory over a tenacious Japan side in their opening World Cup Pool A game at North Harbour on Saturday.
The two-time beaten finalists were less than emphatic, leading by just four points deep into the second half before piling on 22 points inside the final 10 minutes.
Before the late tries from Lionel Nallet and replacements Pascal Pape and Morgan Parra, France were anything but their fourth ranking as the eager Japanese threw everything at them.
France finished with a bonus point from their six tries to two victory, but Japan’s New Zealand-born fly-half James Arlidge was the official man-of-the-match scoring all his team’s points from two tries, three penalties and a conversion.
The French looked rattled at times against the inspired Japanese, who were chasing only their second World Cup victory and raises questions about Les Bleus’ chances of progressing deep into the tournament.
France are coming off a deflating last 12 months hitting rock bottom with a record 59-16 defeat at home to Australia in November and a first-ever loss to Italy in the Six Nations.
France were 1987 and 1999 World Cup runners-up but they will have to topple the top-ranked All Blacks in their pool if they are to avoid a likely quarter-final with England, winners of this year’s Six Nations.
Les Bleus went over in the fifth minute through lock Julien Pierre.
Winger Maxime Medard skipped out of a tackle with Raphael Lakafia and Dimitri Yachvili keeping the ball alive before Pierre plunged over for Yachivili to add the extras.
Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc scored a 60 metres intercept try against the run of play off wayward Arlidge pass for the French to storm to a 14-0 lead after 12 minutes.
Arlidge kicked the Brave Blossoms’ first points with an 18th-minute penalty but the bigger French continued to dominate.
Yachvili kicked two penalties before Japan enjoyed some luck to score through Arlidge.
From a lineout close to the French line Arlidge’s grubber bounced off Trinh-Duc into the fly-half’s arms to an unopposed try and slice France’s lead to 20-8 after 30 minutes.
But Les Bleus hit back quickly with Cedric Heymans’ smart pass setting up a try for right winger Vincent Clerc to lead 25-11 at halftime.
French forwards Imanol Harinordoquy and Nallet were held up over the try-line by a desperate Japanese defence early in the second half.
Arlidge embarrassed the French with a determined solo try, bursting through three weak tackles to score and convert for the Blossoms to trail by a converted try with 30 minutes left with the crowd roaring them on.
Japan again stormed the French line and Arlidge edged them to within four points with his third penalty on 58 minutes.
The French clinched victory when Nallet scored followed by further tries from Pape and Parra to claim the bonus point and saved a monumental embarrassment.