TONGA ON THE RWC STAGE
Tonga can legitimately lay claim to being the most improved team in recent Rugby World Cup history. For supporting evidence look no further than the last Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and the evening of 1 October 2011 when, amidst tumultuous scenes in Wellington, the Tongans put mighty France to the sword 19-14.
A try by wing Sukanaivalu Hufanga and 14 points from the boot of fly half Kurt Morath did the damage on a never-to-be-forgotten occasion, but in truth France escaped lightly and had Tonga enjoyed the run of the ball at certain critical moments, it might have been the Islanders and not the flustered French who made the quarter-finals.
That France managed to compose themselves sufficiently to reach the final – and then nearly win it – speaks volumes of Tonga’s achievement that evening and the team deserved all the laurels that were thrown at them when they were welcomed home as heroes. As a statement of intent, it was plucked straight from the top draw.
Tonga acquitted themselves superbly in New Zealand, battling hard against the host nation in the opening game and then defeating Japan 31-18 before silencing Les Bleus. The frustration came with an inexplicable 25-20 loss to Canada, but with European based stars like Soane Tonga’uiha and Sione Kalamafoni making big names for themselves, the positives far outweighed the negatives and Tonga look set to be competitive for years to come.
It was not always thus and Tonga’s initial forays into the Rugby World Cup were, quite frankly, disastrous. The inaugural tournament saw them trounced by Canada, Wales and Ireland and in 1991 they failed to qualify at all. The Rugby World Cup in 1995 was almost as disappointing, with a 38-10 defeat against France followed by a 41-5 thrashing by Scotland. Their disappointing campaign was put into perspective, though, by what happened in Rustenburg in their final pool match against African outsiders Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast’s Max Brito damaged the fourth and fifth vertebrae in his neck in a tackle, leaving him paralysed for the rest of his life. Tonga won 29-11 but compared to the tragedy suffered by Brito the result was of little relevance.
At Rugby World Cup 1999, Tonga claimed its first major scalp when a side containing such rugby luminaries as Epi Taione, Sililo Martens and Sateki Tuipulotu defeated Italy 28-25 at Leicester’s Welford Road. Sadly, they fared badly in their other two pool matches, losing 45-9 to New Zealand and ending the campaign with a 101-10 thrashing by rampant England at Twickenham, the home side notching 13 tries.
Tonga’s appearance at Rugby World Cup 2003 will not go down as their finest hour. After losing their opening game to Italy 36-12, they gave Wales a fright before losing 27-20. But 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 loss to Canada. That World Cup proved a huge disappointment to Tonga, but in many ways it 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. And it showed as 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 that will be remembered for the breathless way the Tongans set about upsetting the world champions-elect.
When prop forward Kisi Pulu was driven over in the 44th minute of an absorbing clash, Tonga led 10-7 and an upset looked 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 proceeded to set about beating England in their final match. They began brilliantly, too, with Hufanga’s early try handing them a 10-3 lead. England came 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. New-found confidence had been discovered, though, and France would face the whirlwind four years later.
Pierre Hola has scored more points (61) than any other Tonga player in Rugby World Cup history. His tally comes from eight appearances and includes two tries, nine conversions and 11 penalties.
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 shares the record with Canada for most red cards (3) in Rugby World Cup history. Flanker Feleti Mahoni was given his marching orders in his one and only appearance in the tournament against France at Rugby World Cup 1995. Four years later it was the turn of prop Ngalu Taufo'outo to see red, his dismissal contributing to a record 101-10 defeat. At RWC 2007, Tonga managed to overcome the late dismissal of back row Hale T Pole to beat rivals Samoa in Montpellier.