Analysis: Raka growing on world stage as Ollivon comes back from the brink

Alivereti Raka blew hot and cold against the USA in his World Cup debut. But if this clash with Tonga is anything to go by, he is starting to catch fire.

Alivereti Raka blew hot and cold against the USA in his World Cup debut. But if this clash with Tonga is anything to go by, he is starting to catch fire.

The Clermont winger, who finally made his France bow against Scotland in Nice during the warm-ups, produced his most complete performance in blue in a hard-fought 23-21 win over Tonga.

As has been the case in every game France have played in this tournament, they opened up an early lead before having to hang on.

It is a scenario that will not work going forward, but in Raka they had a man who made the difference in Kumamoto.

The 24-year-old made the first try of the game for Virimi Vakatawa, cutting inside two men before offloading with one hand to the centre.

The second was all him, Baptiste Serin taking a quick free-kick after a maul and delivering the ball to the left wing. We are so used to seeing Raka beat people one on one with his pace and power that it was a surprise to see him put boot to ball. It worked though, the little grubber allowing him to scoot in to score.

There was another searing break in the first half, and more evidence of an improved kicking game after one dart in the second.

And while France were not entirely convincing, Raka’s statistics at the end of the game make for startling reading: 142 metres made, four clean breaks, three defenders beaten and two offloads.

The question now is whether he has done enough to force his way into the first-choice 23. Damian Penaud and Yoann Huget started the big group game against Argentina, and while the former was quiet here, he still claimed three restarts including the crucial one at the death that saved France from a nervy finish.

In many ways this game was both closer and more one-sided than the final scoreline suggested. France led 17-0 after 33 minutes and while Tonga fought back, they never had an opportunity to take the lead.

Les Bleus made more metres, tackled more effectively and generally were more threatening with ball in hand.

There were two areas where they struggled, at ruck time, where the Tongans were able to slow down ball and force turnovers, and again in the scrum where they were penalised three times.

Both will be a concern heading into their clash with England. Eddie Jones’ team will go into that game brimming with confidence after a third successive bonus-point victory, not to mention their big win over Les Bleus at Twickenham in February.

This is a different France team, but they still go through periods where they allow the game to slip away from them, and that cannot happen against England.

Jacques Brunel will have been pleased with his lineout, an area which England will target having dominated that sector in the Guinness Six Nations.

Here they won 11 out of 11, with back-rower Charles Ollivon running the show like clockwork. Aside from Raka, Ollivon was the other standout performer for France. He was their top tackler, made 75 metres with ball in hand and almost had a try, a final forward pass costing him a first Test try since 2016.

His return has been miraculous. At the start of last season he suffered his latest serious shoulder injury and there were fears that he would have to retire.

Instead, he has fought his way back to the point that he is the lynchpin in the France pack.

He explained: “Deep down I believed in this destiny: that I would take part in a World Cup.”

Ollivon is doing more than taking part, he is a leader among the French forwards. Where there is still a question mark over Raka’s role in the coming games, there is no doubt for Ollivon.

France have booked their place in the quarter-final, and in some ways the pressure is off now. They are sure to extend their record of reaching the knockout stages of every World Cup.

Without that pressure, the hope for Brunel will be that his side can avoid the tension that has dogged them in this tournament.

We will learn more about them against England next Saturday. The pressure is never off in a Crunch but this is an opportunity for the players to express themselves one last time before winner-takes-all action begins again.