Tonga have survived a thrilling 24-22 win over Lebanon at Christchurch Stadium to qualify for the Rugby League World Cup semi-finals for the first time ever.
Lebanon – the lowest internationally ranked nation before the start of the tournament – will exit having produced one of the best performances of any team in the competition thus far.
Widely predicted to be one-sided affair following Tonga’s mammoth victory of New Zealand last week, the match was an even contest for the entire 80 minutes with Lebanon proving they were more than worthy quarter-finalists.
Their resilient performance in an exciting first half had them well in the contest at the break – just six points behind Tonga’s 22-16 lead.
Lebanon centre and 19-year-old sensation Adam Doueihi looked to have levelled the scores just after the interval, but the video referee overturned a brilliant play because of what is sure to be a controversial obstruction.
It would prove a decisive moment as Tonga soon made the margin eight points after taking a penalty kick in the 53rd minute.
But the game wasn’t done, and Lebanon hit-back when Abbas Miski scored in the 69th minute to bag a brace and make it 24-22 after the conversion.
However, the extra two points added by replacement goal-kicker Mafoa’aeata Hingano – who took over the duties when Sio Siua Taukeiaho was ruled out pre-match – would prove vital as Tonga escaped with a narrow victory.
Lebanon tried to outsmart their Tongan counterparts early in the game but the Mate Ma’a used their natural talents with short and sharp runs through the middle of the park.
Tonga scored first through Tuimoalo Lolohea, before Lebanon levelled the scores at 6-6 after 10 minutes through Doueihi, who put on a clever left-foot step to split the defence.
In the 19th minute, David Fusitu’a showed his exuberant skillset, palming off Lebanon’s defenders before placing a flashy, one-handed try in the corner – all while being hurled over the sideline.
Will Hopoate extended the lead a few minutes later when he caught an off-the-ground Andrew Fifita offload to score on the left edge.
Konrad Hurrell produced a try-saving tackle to deny Lebanon fullback Anthony Layoun with some desperate defence, before 19-year-old Cedars’ centre Adam Douehi then stopped big Hurrell scoring at the other end just moments after.
A brilliant Mitchel Moses’ run on the last tackle fashioned a bizarre try after the five-eighth’s kick deflected off Jason Taumalolo’s head before James Elias slid onto the loose ball.
Proving they weren’t going to be a walkover, Lebanon remained right in the game at 16-12 with ten minutes to play before halftime.
Fusitu’a continued his try-scoring streak in the 33rd minute, leaping into the air to grab the ball close to line and then falling into the in-goal to score a vital four-pointer.
After some helter-skelter play, Lebanon scored in the final minute before halftime via Abbas Miski who collected an Anthony Layoun kick just before it raced over the dead-ball line.
Max McKinney | @MaxMckinney
Rugby League World Cup 2017 Correspondent