Tahiti remain in the hunt for a place in the Rugby World Cup 2019 repechage tournament after upsetting the Cook Islands 13-9 to win the Oceania Rugby Cup 2017 in Rarotonga on Friday.
They will face the Asia Rugby Championship 2018 champion in a home and away play-off with the winner progressing to the four-team global repechage tournament that will determine the 20th and final qualifier for Japan 2019.
Tahiti went into the match at the National Stadium in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, sitting 43 places below their hosts in the World Rugby Rankings and never having tasted victory in the head to head.
"I am very proud of the guys, for us this is an historical victory, the first time winning the Oceania Rugby Cup made more beautiful as it was our first win against the Cook Islands."
However, it was the 91st-ranked Tahiti, buoyed by their French club-based players, who took a second-minute lead through fly-half Andoni Jimenez's penalty, although this was cancelled out nine minutes later by centre Jamian Iroa's own kick.
The first try came on the half-hour mark when winger Vincent Perez crossed for Tahiti in a passage of play that would see Cooks fly-half Greg Mullany sent to the sin-bin.
Two penalties from the boot of Iroa saw the Cooks take the lead for the first time, but on the stroke of half-time scrum-half Guilliaume Brouqui scored a try to send Tahiti in with a 13-9 advantage.
That would prove to be the final score in a match with Iroa missing a fourth penalty attempt midway through a half which saw five yellow cards and a player for each team sent off in Tahiti prop Martin Taeae and Cooks centre Samuela Longo Leuta.
“Firstly I want to thank our hosts the Cook Islands for today’s match and secondly I just wanted to say that I am very proud of the guys, for us this is an historical victory, the first time winning the Oceania Rugby Cup made more beautiful as it was our first win against the Cook Islands,” said Tahiti captain Tunui Anania.
Tahiti coach Romi Ropati added: “We are absolutely stoked with today’s result, it has been very humbling. The boys are going to enjoy tonight and celebrate with friends and family when we return home tomorrow, after that we will look forward to our preparation on the next step for Rugby World Cup qualification.”
Cook Islands captain Francis Smith paid tribute to their conquerors after seeing their RWC 2019 dream end at the first hurdle. “Congratulations to Tahiti it was a well fought game. The boys were disappointed with the result but proud to be Cook Islanders and the team will come back from this loss.”
The victory will lift Tahiti three places to 88th – above the Bahamas, Cameroon and Swaziland – when the World Rugby Rankings update at 12 noon UK time on Monday. The Cook Islands will drop eight places to 56th
Photo: Oceania Rugby/Ronnie Si’ulopa