TOKYO, 14 Oct – Drawn in the so-called "Group of Death" with three Tier 1 nations in England, France and Argentina, a first quarter-final appearance would have been the stuff of dreams for Tonga.
So it proved, but they might have challenged the Pumas if a penalty-try decision had gone their way and they gave France – who they beat in 2011 – an almighty scare before losing 23-21. Their World Cup ended in a showdown with the USA to avoid last place, which they deservedly won 31-19.
A World Cup winner with Australia in 1999, Tonga-born Toutai Kefu was, at 45, the youngest of all 20 coaches at RWC 2019. After spells as forwards coach and caretaker coach he was put in charge of the Sea Eagles in 2016.
He assembled a strong team for the tournament and, given the task they faced after the early loss of stand-off and record points-scorer Kurt Morath with a serious throat injury and centre Nafi Tuitavake with a broken arm, it is hard to think that anybody else would have done any better. With his contract up, he says he will take time to reflect.
"What do you do, I've aged 10 years in the last two months so that's nothing, I'm used to stuff like that..."@officialTongaRU head coach Toutai Kefu gives hilarious answer when asked about his sides decision to scrum in the last play against USA #USAvTGA #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/ODbKUqb6AO— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 13, 2019
Player of the tournament
New Zealand-based flanker Zane Kapeli, pictured top, had never played international rugby until he earned an emergency call-up in November, but the way he flattened England's Billy Vunipola in the opening match made everybody sit up and take notice, including the England number eight - after he had recovered and worked out who had hit him.
More such tackles followed, earning him the nickname "Zane the Train", and a try against France was just reward for his efforts. A move to a top club will surely follow.
Memorable moment off the pitch
During a school visit in Shimabara, 155kg prop Ben Tameifuna, the heaviest player in the tournament, picked up one of the smallest children and, with him tucked under his arm, posed for a picture.
The boy, on being returned to the ground, lay doubled over and motionless for what seemed an eternity, but to everyone’s relief he got up and rejoined his classmates. It will not be something he forgets in a hurry.
Memorable moment on the pitch
When back-row Nasi Manu came on as a second-half replacement against England after surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer. To make the squad was a phenomenal achievement – he missed the entire season with his Italian club Benetton – and he admitted he was close to tears as he received his cap, sung the national anthem and lined up for the Sipi Tau battle cry, but to be called into action meant he had achieved his dream of playing in the World Cup.
Captain Siale Piutau called for "one more special hurrah" against the USA because the squad would be going their separate ways after the tournament and might never be gathered together again. He then announced it would be his last international and was carried off, alongside fellow retiree Sione Kalamafoni, below, after the win.
Tonga can never be sure who is going to be made available to them because of club contracts abroad and at the moment their next scheduled match is not until the Pacific Nations Cup in the second-half of 2020. More games please, particularly against Tier 1 countries, is the oft-repeated request.
Quotes of the tournament
When told that Vunipola, whose father and uncle represented the Sea Eagles, still felt Tongan despite nearly 50 caps for England, coach Kefu said: "He should be playing for us then."
Full-back Telusa Veainu, now one of their undoubted stars, looked back only four years and remembered: "I was at one of my lowest points – I was not going anywhere – when Tonga called me up. It was a life-saver." He signed for Leicester Tigers after the 2015 Rugby World Cup and is still with them. He scored the final try in their victory over the USA, far right, below.
How did they do?
Lost to England 35-3
Lost to Argentina 28-12
Lost to France 23-21
Beat USA 31-19
Tonga by numbers
1,471 – the distance in kilometres between Sapporo, the most northerly tournament venue, and Kumamoto, the most southerly. Tonga were the only team to play in both of them. It is further than from London to Rome.
155 – the weight in kilograms of prop Ben Tameifuna, the heaviest player at Rugby World Cup 2019.
0 – the number of games Nasi Manu had played in the 12 months before the World Cup. He had testicular cancer diagnosed in August 2018, underwent surgery and chemotherapy and made his return as a replacement against England on 22 September.
0 – the number of first-class games hooker Siua Male, a roofer in Christchurch, had played when he was named in the Tonga World Cup squad.