YOKOHAMA, Japan – Two-time defending champion and tournament favorite New Zealand kicked off their Rugby World Cup title defense with a key 23-13 win on Saturday over South Africa.
Two tries scored by the All Blacks’ George Bridge and Scott Barrett over a four-minute span of the first half were the difference in a Pool B contest at International Stadium Yokohama pitting two of the world’s best teams.
South Africa started well and took a 3-0 lead on a Handre Pollard penalty in the opening minute, but New Zealand grabbed a 17-3 advantage at the intermission thanks to the two tries in minutes 23 and 26 – and subsequent conversions – and a Richie Mo’unga penalty.
The Springboks stormed back in the early part of the second half with 10 answered points – seven of them coming on a try by Pieter-Steph du Toit and ensuing conversion.
But penalty goals by Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett pushed New Zealand’s lead back up to 10 and effectively clinched the win.
Despite the loss, South Africa will be heavy favorites in their three remaining Pool B contests against Namibia, Italy and Canada and are still expected to be one of the two teams from their group that qualify for the quarterfinals.
New Zealand now lead Pool B with four points, while South Africa have zero.
Elsewhere Saturday, Argentina came alive after a poor first half and took a late lead over France in Pool C action, but a drop goal by Camille Lopez with time winding down gave Les Blues a narrow 23-21 victory at Tokyo Stadium.
France put up an impenetrable defensive wall in the first half to hold the Pumas to just three points, which came on a penalty off the foot of Nicolas Sanchez that opened the scoring in the 14th minute.
Les Bleus then responded with a dominating stretch – which began with tries scored by Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont in the 17th and 21st minutes and was capped off by Romain Ntamack’s penalty in minute 40 – to snag a 20-3 lead at halftime.
Argentina’s play dramatically improved, however, after the break.
Guido Petti scored his team’s first try in the 41st minute after Argentina set up a driving maul from a lineout. The ensuing conversion by Sanchez made the score 20-10.
Argentina then narrowed that gap to 20-17 on a similarly constructed try in the 53rd minute that was finished off by Julian Montoya, although a missed conversion left the score 20-15.
The Pumas’ onslaught continued with two penalties, with Benjamin Urdapilleta doing the honors on both occasions to give Argentina their first lead of the second half at 21-20.
France appeared to be in dire straits at that juncture, but Lopez scored what proved to be a decisive three points on a drop goal from 30 meters (98 feet) that barely crept over the bar in the 69th minute.
Argentine still had 11 minutes left on the clock and continually pushed forward to take the lead back.
But the score did not change again, with Emiliano Boffelli misfiring by the slimmest of margins on a long-range penalty in the final minute.
Afterward, French captain Guilhem Guirado expressed his relief.
“I thought the game was finished and we’d lost,” he was quoted as saying on the tournament’s Web site. “I’m very, very proud of my boys and very happy to start the competition with a win.”
Argentine captain Pablo Matera, for his part, lamented his side’s poor first 40 minutes.
“It was not good enough – a really bad start from us as a team. It’s not good enough with only one (strong) half.”
Despite the loss, Argentine picked up one bonus point because the match was decided by a margin of less than eight points. France currently lead Pool C with four points.
In one other Rugby World Cup group-stage game Saturday, Australia cruised past Fiji 39-21 in Pool D on the strength of six tries. The Wallabies now lead their group with five points, having picked up a bonus point for scoring at least four tries.
Host Japan kicked off the tournament on Friday with a 30-10 Pool A victory over Russia.
The Rugby World Cup, which is played once every four years, will take place over six weeks and conclude with the final on Nov. 2 in Yokohama.