Tonga has produced a stunning 26-point second-half comeback to win 28-22 over New Zealand in front of a sold-out crowd at Waikato Stadium, beating the Kiwi’s on their own turf to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup quarter-finals.
A David Fusitua hattrick in the second period helped secure Tonga the historic win, on a day featuring an electric and tense atmosphere that made the match a heart-racing occasion from start to finish.
Even in the last minute, it appeared as if New Zealand might have been able to secure a draw and cruel the Mate Ma'a Tonga hopes of a compelling and emotional victory.
But this was Tonga’s day and it began with singled-out superstar Jason Taumalolo leading Tonga’s inspirational Sipi Tau following the Kiwi’s performance of the Haka.
Tensions were at an extreme-high before the game, with Andrew Fifita coming face-to-face with New Zealand during the Haka and Taumalolo roughed-up in the opening pieces of play.
Tonga started the game with the ascendancy and made the Kiwi’s work hard in defence, but ill-discipline cost Tonga dearly.
Five penalties in the opening 40 minutes led either directly to a try or put the Mate Ma'a Tonga under immense pressure, New Zealand using all their experience to break open the Tongan wall on the edges.
Scintillating tries to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Jordan Rapana in the corners pushed New Zealand to a 10-2 lead following an explosive first 20 minutes – and it could have been more had Rapana been able to grasp the ball in the succinct move to his wing in the 14th minute.
Watene-Zelezniak skirted along the sideline to plant an emphatic first try in the 20th minute, following a penalty given away by Tonga captain Sika Manu when the Kiwis were coming out of their own end.
Rapana made up for his earlier missed opportunity with a scintillating one-handed try at the 28th minute mark, his body somersaulting over the sideline as he placed the ball down.
Only a try-saving lasso-style tackle form Michael Jennings’s replacement centre Mahe Fonua prevented a certain try to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck midway through the first half, but the Kiwi’s fullback found his way over just before halftime to extend New Zealand’s lead to 16-2 as the sides went to the break.
It was that moment when the context of the game appeared to have changed, as Tonga had been denied a try of their own just minutes earlier when the touch-judge ruled to have found a forward pass in a move which finished in a breath-taking dive from Daniel Tupou across the stripe.
But the Tonga resurgence was yet to come and when a spectacular movement of play moved Tonga downfield early in the second half, it appeared they had broken their absence of tries, but possession was handed over when the video referee ruled Konrad Hurrell had lost the ball short of the try-line.
Shortly after, David Fusitua reached to the sky after Lolohea’s end-of-set kick and returned with the ball in-hand, reaching out to stretch his arm over the try-line and notch Tonga’s first try.
In the 48th minute, Fusitua bagged a double when he finished a freakish stretch of play, centre Konrad Hurrell throwing a flick-pass to his outside pairing who ran back inside to score.
Bridging the gap back to 16-12, Tonga kept the craziness of this historic test going when Tuimoala Lolohea made an incredible intercept 30-metres out from New Zealand’s line.
Amazingly, with over 15 minutes left to play, Tonga took the lead 18-16 as the atmosphere continued to burst at the sold-out Waikato Stadium.
Ben Murdoch-Masila made a vital break just minutes later, finding fullback William Hopoate on his inside who ran under the posts to extend the margin to 24-16 after the conversion.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck made sure New Zealand weren’t down-and-out in the 73rd minute, darting through Tonga’s stretched defensive line to score his second try and set-up a tense finish with the margin back to two, at 24-22.
Fusitua finished the amazing afternoon with a try in the 77th to give Tonga a margin of six and that’s where it finished, Tonga the victors 28-22.
Max McKinney | @MaxMckinney
Rugby League World Cup 2017 Correspondent