Tonga scored 26 second-half points to stun New Zealand with a thrilling 28-22 victory in front of a full house today at Waikato Stadium, qualifying for a World Cup quarter-final against Lebanon or France, while the Kiwis will now play Fiji in the quarter-finals that begin next weekend.
The Tongan hero was David Fusitua, whose hat-trick in the second half helped them recover from a 16-2 half-time deficit.
Prior to the game there was a tense cultural challenge from both teams, with Andrew Fifita coming face-to-face with New Zealand during the Haka. The tension continues early in the game, when Jason Taumalolo, who had pulled out of the Kiwi squad to play for Tonga, came in for plenty of rough treatment.
Tonga started the game well but conceded five penalties in the opening half, putting themselves under great pressure.
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 Jordan Rapana almost scored another in the 14th minute but was unable to hold a difficult pass.
Watene-Zelezniak sped along the sideline to score the Kiwis’ 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 half.
Rapana made up for his earlier missed opportunity with a one-handed try at the 28th minute as he touched down acrobatically.
Former Hull FC star Mahe Fonua was able to prevent what looked like a certain try to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck midway through the first half, but the Kiwi fullback was more successful just before half-time to extend New Zealand’s lead to 16-2 at the break.
That came fater Tonga had been denied a try minutes earlier when the touch-judge called a forward pass in a move that finished with Daniel Tupou diving in at the corner.
Early in the second half the Tongans were again denied a try when the video referee ruled Konrad Hurrell had lost the ball short of the try-line.
But then Fusitua collected Lolohea’s kick downfield and returned with the ball in-hand, reaching out to stretch his arm over the try-line to score Tonga’s first try.
He scored his second when Hurrell threw a flick-pass to him on the outside, as he ran back inside to score and close the gap to 16-12.
Tonga took an 18-16 lead with 15 minutes to go, as the atmosphere inside the stadium rose to a fever pitch.
Ben Murdoch-Masila then made a break just minutes later, finding fullback William Hopoate on his inside and he touched down to extend the margin to 24-16 after the conversion.
Tuivasa-Sheck brought the Kiwis back into it on 73 minutes, 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 touched down for his hat-trick in the 77th minute, however, to give Tonga a margin of six points in a 28-22 victory.
Full reports, photos and stats from all the weekend’s World Cup games will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express.