LONDON (AP) — France gave European rugby a massive fillip in the opening round of autumn internationals on Saturday, outplaying Australia in a 33-6 hammering as England romped past Fiji to show it could also trouble the southern hemisphere powers this month.
It wasn't all doom and gloom for the southern big guns, however, as South Africa overcame a sluggish first-half display against Ireland to emerge 16-12 winners in Dublin.
Argentina used the experience garnered from its inaugural Rugby Championship campaign to brush aside Six Nations champion Wales 26-12 in Cardiff, but it will be the French who will be wearing the widest smiles after recording their biggest win over the Wallabies in 36 years.
With mercurial flyhalf Frederic Michalak having one of his better days, France exacted revenge for its embarrassing 59-16 loss to Australia in Paris in 2010 by dominating the set pieces and keeping the feeble tourists scoreless for the final hour.
Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana scored tries before Australia's weak scrum suffered the ignominy of conceding a penalty try late on, compounding the second-ranked team's woes.
Crucially, the result will lift Les Bleus into the top four in the IRB rankings, above England despite its 54-12 demolition of Fiji at Twickenham where Charlie Sharples and Manu Tuilagi grabbed a brace of tries. Whoever is ranked in that top four come the end of the autumn tests will be top seeds for the pool draw for the World Cup, which is made on Dec. 3.
In Saturday's other matches, Italy scraped past Tonga 28-23 in Brescia and Japan beat Romania 34-23 in Bucharest. Scotland hosts world champion New Zealand on Sunday.
Mike Harris knocked over Australia's only points with early penalties but the team, robbed of its best backs this tour like Will Genia and James O'Connor, was run ragged by Michalak and a dominant French pack.
"We had a revenge to take against Australia," said Michalak, who kicked 15 points.
Australia's next match is against England, which warmed up for games against the three southern hemisphere sides over successive weekends with a record victory over Fiji.
Sharples and Tuilagi starred in one of the most inexperienced England lineups in the professional era, with Ugo Monye and Tom Johnson also going over. Fiji conceded a penalty try, too, and the try count could easily have leapt into double figures had England been more clinical.
"We will take the positives — there were lots of things we did well, but also some rusty areas we will have to work on, no doubt," said coach Stuart Lancaster. "We're going to have to go up several gears for next week."
Second-half tries from Nikola Matawalu and Seko Kalou were just reward for Fiji's endeavours after going into halftime 25-0 down.
South Africa had won only one of its previous four matches in Dublin and its hopes weren't helped this time round by prop Tendai Mtawarira being withdrawn on the morning of the match, after being hospitalized with heart palpitations.
Ireland held a 12-3 lead at halftime thanks to four penalties by Jonathan Sexton but went scoreless in the final hour, slipping to a fifth straight loss — the team's worst run in 14 years.
The Springboks capitalized on the sin-binning of Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip to score a converted try through Ruan Pienaar early in the second half, with Pat Lambie's two penalties sealing victory. It was ugly but effective from the tourists.
"We had a terrible first half, made a lot of mistakes and forced a lot of passes," Pienaar said. "But in the second half our forwards made a huge step up, got some good drives going and forced them to make errors."
Argentina emerged from its first summer series with the southern powers with no victories but plenty of experience in the locker and the team put it all to good use against Wales.
Eleven years to the day after its only previous victory at Millennium Stadium, Juan Imhoff and Gonzalo Camacho scored tries for the Pumas while flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez booted 13 points after taking over kicking duties from the injured Felipe Contepomi.
"This is a great win for us," said Argentina captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, whose team had gone seven tests without a victory. "We are so happy to win against such a great team."
Wales had been 12-6 ahead with half an hour to go, without ever playing well and lacking the gusto it showed in winning the Six Nations in March. This loss came on the heels of three straight narrow defeats to Australia in the summer.
Lorenzo Cittadini and Leonardo Ghiraldini scored tries for Italy, which was also awarded a penalty try in the second half in a bruising match against Tonga.
Japan and Romania also conceded penalty tries, but Hirotoki Onozawa's 52nd try in 75 tests four minutes from the end sealed Japan's win.