Laporte laments loss as Pumas pummel France

France 14 - Argentina 24
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France's dream of ending 2004 unbeaten was unceremoniously shattered by Argentina on Saturday as the pumped-up Pumas became the first team to beat France four times in a row.

France's dream of ending 2004 unbeaten was unceremoniously shattered by Argentina on Saturday as the pumped-up Pumas became the first team to beat France four times in a row.

Bernard Laporte's team had their eyes on a national record ninth game without defeat, since their World Cup disappointment. And yet Argentina's victory was all the more impressive since it came it in a stadium where France were unbeaten for four years, a run that included victories over England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

The Pumas, playing with a strong wind at their backs, reached half-time with a 19-5 lead and the French never recovered. The fly-half Felipe Contepomi kicked two early penalties and the Pumas were denied a try by the video referee, but the flanker Martin Durand then touched down following a five-metre scrum.

The centre Tony Marsh made French pressure tell at the other end with a try to reduce the deficit on the half-hour mark, but a lack of ball control allowed Contepomi to make it four penalties and a conversion in the half.

The French fought back strongly as the second half unfolded and began to win the backing of the crowd, but apart from a Frédéric Michalak penalty their efforts amounted to little reward and the prop Omar Hasan, an amateur opera singer, brought down the final curtain with a try in the game's dying moments to seal a famous Argentinian victory.

"We wanted to end 2004 unbeaten," Laporte said. "It's over. We have to accept the lesson and draw the conclusions."

Since he took charge of the French XV after they reached the final of the 1999 World Cup, Laporte has had to get used to inconsistency. At the end of the 2001-2002 season, France travelled to Buenos Aires after winning seven games in a row. They lost by a point.

Then came the disappointment of defeats to Ireland and England in the 2003 Six Nations' Championship and, of course, the great fall of the last World Cup when they bowed out to England - and Jonny Wilkinson's pitiless boot - in the semi-finals after cruising through the early rounds with the air of champions in waiting.

There was no tantrum this time from Laporte, just an honest appraisal of his team's failings. "We simply were not good enough in terms of winning possession and territorial advantage," he said. "During the first half, I felt that some of our players were not there."

Laporte had some harsh words for the half-back pairing of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Michalak, and said that the Argentinian scrum-half Agustin Pichot and Contepomi "mastered the wind and the running of time in the second half".

Laporte and his team manager Jo Maso made three changes to the squad to face New Zealand next Saturday at the Stade de France in Paris. The South African-born centre Brian Liebenberg and prop Pieter de Villiers and the veteran wing Christophe Dominici will replace Nicolas Brusque, Nicolas Mas and Jimmy Marlu respectively.

"We decided that we couldn't forget the great game we played against Australia," said Maso of the 27-14 win over the Wallabies a week ago. "Such games give the players the right to redeem themselves."

France: Try Marsh; Penalties Elissalde 2, Michalak. Argentina: Tries Durand, Hasan; Conversion F Contepomi; Penalties F Contepomi 4

FRANCE: N Brusque (Biarritz); A Rougerie, T Marsh (both Clermont-Auvergne), Y Jauzion, C Heymans; F Michalak, J-B Elissalde (all Toulouse); O Milloud (Bourgoin), W Servat (Toulouse), S Marconnet (Stade Français), F Pelous (capt, Toulouse), J Thion, S Betsen, I Harinordoquy (all Biarritz), O Magne (Clermont-Auvergne). Replacements: S Bruno (Sale), N Mas (Perpignan), P Papé, J Bonnaire (both Bourgoin), J Peyrelongue (Biarritz), C Poitrenaud (Toulouse), J Marlu (Toulouse).

ARGENTINA: J Martin Hernandez; L Borges, M Aramburu, M Contepomi, H Senillosa; F Contepomi, A Pichot (capt); R Roncero, M Ledesma, O Hasan, P Albacete, R Alvarez, M Durand, G Longo Elia, L Ostiglia. Replacements: F Mendez, R Rodriquez, P Bouza, M Schusterman, N Fernandez Miranda, J de la Cruz, J Fernandez Miranda.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).