Tonga coach Toutai Kefu lamented the Pacific islanders’ slow starts at the Rugby World Cup in Japan after their dream of a maiden quarter-final was crushed on Sunday having fallen short in a thriller against France.

Tonga were 17-0 behind at Kumamoto Stadium until they scored a try on the cusp of halftime, and though they showed great courage to push France to the brink, they left their run too late in a 23-21 defeat.

Having had sluggish starts in earlier pool-game losses to England and Argentina, Kefu said he and his staff needed to address the issue.

“We coaches talked about it straight away, post-game. Maybe we warm up for too long. It’s something we need to look at,” the former Australia loose forward told reporters.

“It’s probably just a mental thing, because as you can see, we finished the game really well. It is definitely an issue for us.

“We regret starting poorly. If we had started better, we might have won the game.”

Tonga could take encouragement from their second-half display as they pressured France with bone-jarring tackling and some neat attacking moves.

When flanker Zane Kapeli collected a cross-kick for a last-gasp try, it briefly appeared as if they might emulate their stunning 19-14 upset of France in New Zealand eight years ago, the biggest shock of the 2011 World Cup.

France held on though, leaving the Tongans to play only for pride in their last pool match against the United States.

“We wanted to create history again, knowing what the old boys did in 2011 against France,” said winger Cooper Vuna, who played two tests for Australia in 2012.

“We did well against England, we improved a bit more against Argentina, and coming here against France we thought that we should be competing with the tier-one nations.

“We’re definitely not far off it. The more resources we need that we can get, the better it will be for us.”