Another 50-point flogging for one of rugby's minnow nations? Er, not exactly. The suave French eventually purred to victory, but at 20-19 two minutes into the second half a prolonged bout of Gallic shrugging and arm-waving seemed imminent.
But the problem which bedevils all the lesser rugby nations of the world, namely their inability to match the leading professional countries for power and fitness, was decisive. As the Japanese ran out of steam, no longer able to handle the pressure and pace, the French regained control to finish easy winners.
France started and ended a highly entertaining game with great precision. Tries by Frédéric Michalak and the powerful, hard-running Aurelien Rougerie inside the first seven minutes gave France an early 14-3 lead. Further tries from Rougerie and Jean-Jacques Crenca in the last 11 minutes suggested another of the World Cup's lopsided contests. But in between, the feisty Japanese ran themselves to a standstill. It was enough to disrupt what the French clearly thought would be a pleasant running fiesta in Townsville's balmy evening climate.
Fortified by the expertise of some New Zealand craft, especially in midfield, Japan took advantage of France's erratic defending. A back row of Olivier Magne, Serge Betsen and Christian Labit is not the worst in the world, but put 19 handling errors into the mix and you begin to understand the nature of France's stop-start performance. Possession was not a problem, but concentration over lengthy periods certainly was. Scoring chances were thrown away with the carefree touch of casino gamblers. Why on earth Clément Poitrenaud, in the second half, passed when a try looked certain with the line 10 metres away was a mystery.
The great former Wallaby Mark Ella has been assisting the Japanese backs, and his imprint was writ large upon their opening try. From first phase, the former All Black trialist George Konia cut so lacerating an angle through the French defence at such pace that he scored without a hand laid on him.
Japan's other try was almost as good. Hirotoki Onozawa, seriously quick, made ground down the left from deep, and fast, recycled possession ended with Daisuke Ohata getting over in the right corner. The magnificent Toru Kurihara, combative and a place-kicker of excellence who never missed all night, converted both tries as well as landing five penalties, after four, 10, 40, 46 and 62 minutes.
France's casual indiscipline fed the Japanese their chances. Well served by captain Takuro Miuchi in the back row as well as outside-half Andrew Miller, another New Zealander, the Japanese hounded the French until undermined by fatigue.
France excelled in fits and starts. But future opponents will not have overlooked the quality of their handling, the interpassing among their forwards and their ability to clear the ball out so fast from rucks in the first 20 minutes, when they looked right in the groove. Labit charged through a gap and then gave an outrageous flip pass behind his back to prop Olivier Milloud to make Michalak's try. It typified the best of the French.
Tries: Michalak, Rougerie 2, Pelous, Dominici, Crenca
Cons: Michalak 5, Merceron
Pens: Michalak 3
Tries: Konia, Ohata
Cons: Kurihara 2
Pens: Kurihara 5
Half-time: 20-16 Attendance: 24,000
France: C Poitrenaud; A Rougerie, T Marsh, D Traille, C Dominici; F Michalak (G Merceron, 70), F Galthié; O Milloud, Y Bru (R Ibanez, 53), J-B Poux (J-J Crenca, 53), F Pelous (D Auradou, 68), O Brouzet, S Betsen (S Chabal, 70), O Magne, C Labit.
Japan: T Kurihara; D Ohata, G Konia, H Namba, H Onozowa; A Miller, Y Sonoda; S Hasegawa, M Sakata, R Yamamura, H Tanuma (K Kubo, 43), A Parker, N Okubo (R Asano, 68), T Miuchi, T Ito.
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ireland).