RWC 2019 spotlight: Tonga

We take a look at the history of Tonga at the Rugby World Cup after they confirmed their place at Japan 2019 as the Oceania 2 qualifier last weekend.

Of the three Pacific Island nations to compete at the Rugby World Cup, Tonga are the only one not to progress beyond the pool stages.

Inconsistency and ill-discipline – they are one of only two teams to have had three players sent off at Rugby World Cups – have blighted Tonga’s attempts to create a lasting impression at the game's premier event.

However, like Fiji and Samoa, who have both beaten Wales at this level, Tonga can lay claim to one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history when they downed France at RWC 2011.

That France managed to compose themselves sufficiently to reach the final – and then nearly win it – speaks volumes of Tonga’s achievement and the team deserved all the plaudits that were thrown at them when they were welcomed home as heroes.


It took Tonga six attempts to win a Rugby World Cup match having drawn a blank at the inaugural tournament in 1987 and then failed to even qualify for the next edition four years later. After heavy defeats to France and Scotland, the duck was finally broken against Ivory Coast at RWC 1995 in a match remembered for the tragic injury suffered by winger Max Brito. 

At Rugby World Cup 1999, Tonga claimed their first major scalp when a side containing such rugby luminaries as Epi Taione, Sililo Martens and Sateki Tuipulotu defeated Italy 28-25 at Welford Road in Leicester. Sadly, they fared badly in their other two pool matches, losing 45-9 to New Zealand and ending the campaign with a 101-10 loss to a rampant England at Twickenham, the home side crossing for 13 tries.

After dropping their opening match to Italy 36-12 at RWC 2003, Tonga gave Wales a fright before losing 27-20. From then on it was downhill all the way as Tonga were swept aside 91-7 by New Zealand before bowing out of the tournament with a 24-7 defeat to Canada.

In many ways that disappointing showing in Australia was the catalyst for change. By the time Rugby World Cup 2007 came around, Tonga had assembled their best-ever side and in warriors like Finau Maka, Hale T Pole, Viliami Vaki and Nili Latu they possessed genuine stars who knew their way around international rugby. Tonga began their campaign with a convincing 25-15 victory over USA before defeating Samoa 19-15 to end a nine-game losing run against their Pacific Island rivals.

That set up a titanic showdown with South Africa in Lens where the Tongans set about upsetting the world champions-elect in a breathless start to the game. When prop Kisi Pulu was driven over in the 44th minute of an absorbing clash, Tonga led 10-7 and an upset of seismic proportions looked to be on the cards. South Africa recovered to lead 30-22 after 75 minutes, but Pierre Hola soon replied with a penalty and in the furious finale that ensued Tonga came mightily close to scoring what could have been a dramatic winning try.

Disappointed but unbowed, Tonga went into their final pool match against England brimming with confidence. They began brilliantly, with Sukanaivalu Hufanga scoring his second try in as many matches to give them an early 10-3 lead. England inevitably came roaring back but there was still only a score in it with 50 minutes gone. Eventually Tonga began to tire and Jonny Wilkinson’s calm assurance saw England to a 36-20 win.


Tonga’s improvement on the Rugby World Cup stage continued in New Zealand in 2011, where, amid tumultuous scenes in Wellington, they saw off France 19-14 in the penultimate match in Pool A. Another try from Hufanga separated the sides on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion where around 6,000 red-shirted ex-pats filled the stands. Both sides ended the pool stages with two wins apiece but Les Bleus qualified for the quarter-finals as runners-up to the All Blacks after picking up three bonus points to Tonga’s one.

Nili Latu on Tonga's plans to learn from RWC 2015
Tonga and Newcastle Falcons player Nili Latu rues the past failures of the national side during Rugby World Cup 2015. World Rugby catches up with the strong defender on what the future holds for the Pacific team.

Unfortunately, Tonga’s upward curve across the 2007 and 2011 tournaments flat-lined at England 2015. Losing 17-10 to the lower-ranked Georgia in their opening match at Kingsholm was a bitter pill to swallow. Fetu'u Vainikolo's try was his 15th for Tonga, making him his country's leading try scorer in test rugby, but it was in vain after the Lelos had struck first through Mamuka Gorgodze and Giorgi Tkhilaishvili.

Tonga recovered from their opening loss to beat Namibia 35-21 at Exeter’s Sandy Park, their best-ever score in a RWC match. Telusa Veainu and Jack Ram both grabbed a brace of tries apiece and Latiume Fosita scored another as the 'Ikale Tahi notched their 99th win in test rugby.

Next up was a first-ever international with Argentina. With an average age of 31 years and 38 days, Tonga selected the oldest match-day squad in RWC history for the pivotal clash against Los Pumas. Nili Latu also became his country’s most-capped player with this his 42nd test appearance. Tonga were only four points adrift early in the second half following tries from two of the 'thirty-somethings', Kurt Morath and Sione Tonga’uiha, but Los Pumas picked up the pace thereafter to win 45-16.

Tonga had the better of the opening exchanges against New Zealand on an atmospheric night at St James’ Park in Newcastle, but they were unable to cross the whitewash and trailed 14-3 at half-time after conceding tries from Ben Smith and Tony Woodcock. Kurt Morath added to his earlier penalty with two more after the break but a Nehe Milner-Skudder brace and tries from Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Cane and Ma'a Nonu, on his 100th test appearance, saw the All Blacks register a comfortable 47-9 win.


Kurt Morath overtook Pierre Hola’s record as Tonga’s all-time leading points scorer in RWC history during the 2015 tournament after taking his tally to 73 points.


Red letter day – An estimated 6,000 fans turned out to support Tonga at RWC 2011 in New Zealand, and the red and white clad hordes were left basking in a famous victory after the 19-14 win over France.


Room 101 – Ill-discipline saw Tonga crash to a 101-10 defeat against England at Twickenham. The Pacific Islanders had hoped to emulate Samoa’s success in beating Wales earlier in the tournament by causing another World Cup upset, but three cards – one red and two yellow – in the space of three minutes just before the interval ruined any chance they had.


“The win tonight, you probably don’t know what it means to me and the people back in Tonga … I think in Tonga right now, they are going crazy.” – Tonga coach Isitolo Maka on his country’s finest victory.


Tonga's failure to cross the whitewash against New Zealand at RWC 2015 ended a run of 17 matching scoring a try in the competition.

With 11 yellows and three reds, Tonga have received more cards than any other team in RWC history.