The much anticipated clash between New Zealand and Tonga would determine which side would finish atop Group B. Both sides had been impressive in their opening two group fixtures registering two big wins each and scoring seemingly at will.
The venue was a packed Waikato Stadium in Hamilton and the atmosphere was raised several notches as the two sides presented their cultural exchange, a little too close to one another in their shows of strength.
The stage was set for a belter with the bookies suggesting a New Zealand win, as Tonga were without the services of the free scoring Michael Johnson. The winners would likely have a quarter final game against Lebanon with the losers facing Fiji.
A high-speed but scrappy opening five minutes from both sides saw New Zealand punished for gifting two consecutive penalties on their own line as Sio Taukeiaho slotted over a two point penalty from in front of the sticks.
As the two sides settled into their games there was some tremendous defence and it was New Zealand who found their way over for the first try on twenty when Dallin Watene-Zelezniak went down the left wing to dive over in the corner off a Dean Whare pass. Shaun Johnson was unable to add the extras from the touchline.
The Kiwis were getting into their groove and on twenty-seven they got their second, this time when Jordan Rapana went over to score spectacularly in the right corner off a short pass from Brad Takariangi. This time Johnson managed to kick the extras for a 10-2 lead.
Five minutes from the break and brilliance from Tonga’s Daniel Tupou saw him take a low pass and grounding spectacularly was ruled out by referee Sutton for a forward pass in the build up. One minute from the half time hooter and Takairangi found Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in support to dive over. The decision was referred to the video official after referee Sutton suspected Takairangi had been tackled before passing but the video showed he’d been released. Johnson added the extras and New Zealand took a 16-2 lead into the break.
Tonga got their first try of the game on forty-seven when David Fusitu’a leapt to take a high kick to the corner and ground under a weak attempted New Zealand tackle from Watene-Zelezniak. The conversion was missed but Tonga had a route back into the game.
On fifty-eight Tonga scored the try of the game keeping the ball alive on the last tackle with a delightful inside ball allowing Fusitu’a to step inside and go over by the uprights. Taukeiaho kicked the conversion and the New Zealand margin was down to just four points.
With sixty-one on the clock a careless kiwi pass was intercepted by Lolohea to go thirty metres to score under the sticks. Taukeiaho kicked the two to edge his side into a two point lead with seventeen minutes left on the clock.
The sensational Tongans grabbed their fourth unanswered try when Ben Murdoch-Masila was the provider with an inside pass to Will Hopoate to again ground under the sticks. Taukeiaho kicked the two for a stunning 24-16 lead.
Nine minutes from the final hooter and it was New Zealand’s turn to keep the ball alive with Tuivasa-Sheck running through the Tonga defence to ground from twenty-five metres out. Johnson kicked the conversion and the lead was down to two points.
When Fusitu’a completed his hat-trick just three minutes from time he won the game and a famous victory for Tonga. Diving over in the right corner off a Konrad Hurrell pass he pushed Tonga to a 28-22 lead and with Taukeiaho missing the conversion.
The final hooter heralded the first ever Tongan win over New Zealand. It was a sensational performance in a superbly competitive game which sees Tonga top their group and go through the group stage unbeaten. The atmosphere carried Tonga through a fabulous second half in which they blitzed the Kiwis to come back from a sizeable half time deficit.
Now, perhaps, Tonga will be considered as potential finalists, and who knows, possibly World Cup Winners.