A hat-trick from captain Sonatane Takalua was the highlight as Tonga defeated battling Hong Kong 44-22 in the Asia/Pacific 1 play-off at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Australia on Saturday to punch their ticket to Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.
The 'Ikale Tahi will line up in Pool B, beginning their RWC 2023 campaign against Ireland in Nantes on 16 September, before playing Scotland in Nice on 24 September, South Africa in Marseille on 1 October and finishing against Romania in Lille on 8 October.
Post-match, Takalua’s feeling was one of relief that they had become the 19th team to confirm their participation in France next year.
“I am lucky enough to get these three tries but it wasn’t just me, it was a great effort from all the boys and it is a big relief to get the win,” said Tonga's three-try hero.
“Tongan supporters are always behind wherever we go in the world and to get support like this behind us tonight was a big push for us.”
Playing with a stiff breeze at their backs in the first half, Tonga threatened to pile on the points in the early stages but were left frustrated by two disallowed tries.
A knock-on at the base of the ruck by Takalua in the build-up to a short side play first saw Tima Fainga’anuku denied, and then the ever-dangerous Solomone Funaki had a try from a maul chalked off for obstruction.
At this stage, Hong Kong were under severe pressure, particularly at scrum time, and they conceded five penalties in the first 10 minutes.
For all their territory and possession, Tonga had yet to get on the scoreboard but another Hong Kong indiscretion was finally punished in the 11th minute, with the trusty left boot of fly-half William Havili supplying three points.
Strong carries from openside Funaki and inside centre Fetuli Paea laid the platform for the first try, which came after Takalua sniped over from close range, Havili converting to take Tonga’s lead into double figures.
Hong Kong finally managed to get their hands on the ball as the first quarter drew to a close and scored a try with their very first visit inside the Tongan 22 when some slick passing put hooker Alex Post in at the corner.
Stung by the score, Tonga upped the tempo again and pressed for their second try. After good work by the forwards, Takalua went for the line himself and, at first glance, it appeared the scrum-half had lost control of the ball when he stretched for the line. However. after consultation with his TMO, referee Damon Murphy awarded the try and Havili added the extras for a 17-5 lead.
Hong Kong replied almost immediately, with a superb dummy and run by full-back Nate de Thierry putting them inside the Tongan 22 before Tom Hill took the ball on with a strong carry. Tonga were in retreat mode and when hooker Siua Maile illegally slowed the ball down at the ruck, he was sent to the sin-bin. Gregor McNeish kicked the subsequent penalty.
Havili’s second penalty on the half-hour mark made it 20-8 and Tonga continued to look the most likely team to score despite being down to 14 men,
However, further chances went begging when Sione Havili Talitui knocked on inches short and Maile’s bustling run down the left touchline, shortly after his reintroduction from the sin bin, was ended by a brilliant cover tackle from McNeish.
A third try for Takalua two minutes after the restart handed Tonga the perfect start to the second half, and the game looked up for Hong Kong when loosehead Siegfried Fisi’ihoi crashed over at the back of a maul with 47 minutes gone.
After a scrappy period of play, Tonga’s next score came as a result of their scrum dominance, winger Telusa Veainu finishing off a set-piece move on the hour mark. Havili put the two previous misses behind him to slot the conversion.
By now play had really opened up and Veainu's fellow winger, Anzelo Tuitavuki got in on the act with the best score of the match, a sizzling 65-metre effort with a goosestep thrown in for good measure.
With Havili landing his sixth kick of the match, the score was now 44-8 to Tonga and their supporters were in full voice.
Credit to Hong Kong, they didn’t let up and their efforts were finally rewarded in the 75th minute when Matt Worley did very well to gather in a crossfield kick from McNeish and score their second try.
Worley was then on the receiving end of another kick as the clock went red, the Bedford Blues flyer using his searing pace to benefit as the ball bounced kindly in his favour from Bryn Philips’ speculative punt downfield.
It was a fine finish to the match from Hong Kong who get another chance to qualify for their first Rugby World Cup in November.
As the Asia / Pacific runners-up, they will take part in the Final Qualification Tournament, a four-team round-robin competition with Portugal (Europe 3), Kenya (Africa 2) and USA (Americas 3).
“It is not the result we wanted but I am hugely proud of our boys of how we gave it everything,” said Hong Kong captain and number eight Josh Hrstich.
“We had three weeks together – bankers, brokers, PTs, sparkies … part-time rugby battlers who had the chance of a lifetime, a one-off game against Tonga.
“We said we weren’t going to die wondering about what might have been so we threw the kitchen sink at it all the way to the very end.
“I can’t wait for us to take the next step together.”