HANAZONO, 13 Oct – Tonga captain Siale Piutau had virtually everything he wanted on his 34th birthday on Sunday.
He led his team to victory in his final game of international rugby, a 31-19 defeat of USA at Hanazono to give the Pacific Islanders their first victory of Rugby World Cup 2019 and leave Gary Gold’s side winless for the second tournament running.
He scored their third try, he was named Player of the Match and, although he would have been happy for the ball to be kicked out in stoppage time, he even landed a conversion – the first he has ever taken - after full-back Telusa Veainu had gone through for their bonus-point fourth try.
All that was missing was his sister Ema. She died of stomach cancer in April and amid all the celebrations at the end of the match Piutau, pictured above left being carried off by his team-mates, remembered her. “It’s been a tough journey,” he said, “but all this has been done in her memory.”
The players immediately gathered round Piutau at the final whistle, knowing exactly what it meant to him, and he said: “The boys have given me the best birthday possible. It’s been a great honour to represent this jersey.”
On the conversion he said: “I didn’t want to take it, but they insisted, and I certainly didn’t want to miss it because I would have become an online meme.”
Both teams had been beaten by England, France and Argentina and USA have now equalled their worst-ever sequence of 10 successive defeats in the tournament.
The Pacific Islanders were themselves trying to avoid a record sixth straight loss and, after coming so close against France last weekend, they thoroughly deserved the win.
With Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, only on the fringes of the devastating Typhoon Hagibis the match was able to go ahead after an early morning inspection of the venue and associated infrastructure. There was a minute’s silence for those who lost their lives in the typhoon.
Tonga went ahead after 16 minutes when prop Siegfried Fisiihoi barged his way over.
USA soon lost captain Blain Scully and prop Eric Fry, but seconds after coming on as Scully’s replacement Mike Te’o broke through the covering defence to score their first try. Five minutes later he was over again when a long pass after a lineout gave him a clear run.
Fisiihoi was almost celebrating his second try after 34 minutes. He took the pass from Sonatane Takalua but dropped the ball on being tackled just short of the line.
After the break Takalua added a penalty to his earlier conversion to reduce the gap to two points and although USA did manage to take play down the other end, it led to Tonga’s second try.
A knock-on gave Veainu the opportunity to kick downfield. He won the race to the ball before finding winger Atieli Pakalani, who had centre Malietoa Hingano inside him to score from 25m out.
Takalua’s last involvement was the conversion for 17-12, but he was soon able to cheer from the sidelines as Piutau went through a gaping hole in the defence for a try that was celebrated with some emotion.
With James Faiva’s conversion it was suddenly 24-12 with 17 minutes left. USA did score again through flanker Tony Lamborn after 77 minutes, but Tonga ended on the attack. Veainu went through for the bonus point and Piutau was allowed to add the conversion with the final kick of the game, and of his international career.
Gold said: “It’s pretty raw right now, but if it shows anything it’s just how bloody difficult it is to win a game at the Rugby World Cup.
“The margin is very small between being competitive and getting a result.”