The timeline of Rugby World Cups is littered with memorable drop goals, but Sateki Tuipulotu’s long-range, match-winning effort against Italy at Rugby World Cup 1999 must rank as one of the finest.
With five minutes of stoppage time played and the scores tied at 25-25 in the Pool B encounter, the full-back produced the sweetest of strikes to send the ball sailing through the uprights.
There was no time for the restart and, as referee David McHugh blew his whistle, Tonga celebrated only their second win at a Rugby World Cup, against a team that would shortly join France and the Home Nations in making up an expanded Six Nations Championship.
Both teams went into the match on the back of heavy defeats – Tonga losing 45-9 to New Zealand, while Italy had gone down 67-7 against England – so this was an opportunity to make amends.
Pre-match favourites Italy got off to an assured start, with two Diego Domínguez penalties handing them a 6-0 lead. But a two-try blitz from Tonga, with scores from Taunaholo Taufahema and Tuipulotu, turned the game on its head.
Penalties from Domínguez and Tuipulotu then led to the ‘Ikale Tahi going into half-time 18-12 up.
The second half followed a similar pattern as the first, with Italy claiming the first points on the scoreboard through a fifth Domínguez penalty and Alessandro Moscardi’s converted try.
But Tonga were far from done and the lead changed hands again when replacement Isileli Fatani went over for their third try.
Domínguez kept his nerve to nail a sixth penalty and level the scores, but Tonga were not to be denied. After keeping possession through multiple phases between the Azzurri’s 10-metre line and halfway, they eventually put their faith in Tuipulotu who made no mistake from 45 metres out.
A fixture that may not have been on many people’s radar before kick-off had ended in dramatic fashion and given the 10,244 crowd inside Welford Road superb entertainment.