Argentina's wandering tribe of rugby itinerants, poor as church mice but brave as lions, delivered one of the great performances in their country's sporting history last night by beating the French in their own capital in the opening match of the sixth World Cup. The most celebrated of the South Americans, the scrum-half Agustin Pichot and the centre Felipe Contepomi, were the outstanding performers – no mean effort, given the tears of emotion they shed during the anthems – while Ignacio Corleto, who plays his club rugby in this city, scored the only try of a magnificent contest.
The whole of France, even the many non-rugby areas in the northern and central swathes of the country, had been agog for months at the prospect of this tournament setting itself in motion. As it turned out, it took the fickle Parisian crowd – famously described as "bourgeois shits" by the national coach Bernard Laporte, who has never been truly forgiven – less than half an hour to start turning on their team in time-honoured fashion. Argentina exerted a strong measure of control from the start and barely relinquished a single iota of it. After the first 40 minutes of captivating action, they were 17-9 up, Contepomi kicking a dozen points, three particularly damaging ones from a metre inside his own half, and Corleto scooting away for an opening try in the right corner after Remy Martin had thrown an interception pass.
They could have been better off still. Juan Martin Hernandez, who promises to be one of the stellar players of the competition, missed the sticks with two attempted drop-goals; Contepomi was also wide with a drop, and struck a post attempting the conversion of Corleto's galloping score. In addition, they handed David Skrela, the French outside-half, nine points on a plate by messing up restarts and losing their discipline at the breakdown. One way or another, the host nation were lucky to be as close as they were at the interval.
If Skrela was largely to blame for their predicament – he even managed to get himself tackled in open field by Martin Scelzo, the Puma prop with a fair claim to being the slowest individual on view – he was far from alone. Cedric Heymans, a career wing picked at full-back ahead of the specialist practitioner Clement Poitrenaud, was an outbreak of panic waiting to happen; Pierre Mignoni, so impressive at scrum-half over the course of this year, found himself badly outplayed by the 33-year-old Pichot, who had the time of his life behind a pumped-up pack of forwards who dominated the loose exchanges despite suffering unexpected indignities at the set-piece.
Perhaps unwilling to spend too much time listening to Laporte tear strips of them in the dressing room, the French were back on the field early for the second period. More cohesive now, they laid siege to the Pumas almost from the kick-off and then threatened from long range when Aurelien Rougerie finally found a way of freeing himself from the shackles. This attack also petered out, but Skrela cut the deficit with a fourth penalty on 55 minutes before giving way to the more inventive Frédéric Michalak.
Instantly, Michalak tested the Puma defence in a different way, kicking dangerously to the right corner and then catching the retreating Corleto in possession. Inevitably, there was no release of the ball on the floor – Corleto risked a trip to the sin bin by clinging on – but his transgression went unpunished when Michalak missed the simplest of penalties. Contepomi then missed two kickable shots of his own, but the Argentine tacklers held firm to resist the last vestiges of the French effort.
They said it couldn't happen: Great World Cup shocks
* Western Samoa 16 Wales 13, 1991
"Thank heavens Wales weren't playing the whole of Samoa" went the famous quip following arguably the greatest shock in World Cup history. Wales' Cardiff Arms Park defeat to Western Samoa was the first time a leading rugby nation had come unstuck in the tournament against a rank outsider.
* South Africa 15 New Zealand 12, 1995
It is this result that first obliterated New Zealand's aura of invincibility. The All Blacks have been favourites for every World Cup since 1991, but never more so than when a Jonah Lomu-inspired XV blazed a trail all the way to the 1995 final against South Africa. But the hosts had other ideas and, inspired by a 62,000 partisan home crowd, completely shut down the All Blacks machine to win courtesy of a Joel Stransky drop goal in extra-time.
* Wales 31 Samoa 38, 1999
So lightning really can strike twice. The islanders repeated their shock victory from eight years earlier, becoming the first visiting team to win at Wales' shining new Millennium Stadium. However, unlike the 1991 game, the match was a feast of running rugby with the visitors scoring five tries. The match is also memorable for Wales fly-half Neil Jenkins overtaking Michael Lynagh as Test rugby's highest ever points scorer.
France: Penalties Skrela 4. Argentina: Try Corleto; Penalties F Contepomi 4
France: C Heymans (Toulouse); A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), C Dominici (Stade Francais); D Skrela (Stade Francais, F Michalak 61), P Mignoni (Clermont Auvergne, J-B Elissalde (Toulouse) 72); O Milloud (Bourgoin), R Ibanez (Wasps, capt, D Szarzewski (Stade Francais) 59), P De Villiers (Stade Francais), F Pelous (Toulouse, S Chabal (Sale) 59), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), R Martin (Stade Francais, J Bonnaire (Bourgoin) 60), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz).
Argentina: I Corleto (Stade Francais); L Borges (Stade Francais), M Contepomi (Newman, H Senillosa (Hindu) 73), F Contepomi (Leinster), H Agulla (Hindu); J M Hernandez (Stade Francais), A Pichot (Stade Francais, capt); R Roncero (Stade Francais), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), M Scelzo (Clermont Auvergne, G Bonorino (Capitolina) 64), I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), R Alvarez Kairelis (Perpgnan) ht), P Albacete (Toulouse), L Ostiglia (Agen), J M Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), J M Leguizamon (London Irish).
Referee: A Spreadbury (England).Reuse content