Tonga gets its mojo back after qualifying for Rugby World Cup with win over Hong Kong

Tonga male rugby players celebrate after qualifying for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

“Relief” was the word heard over and over again in the Tongan camp after they beat Hong Kong 44-22 at Sunshine Coast Stadium at Kawana Waters on Saturday.

The win meant Tonga had secured its place at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. The Tongans will join Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Romania in Pool B next year.

“I’m very emotional inside. I’m trying not to show my emotions but it’s a big relief to get the win,” Tonga captain Sonatane Takulua said after the match.

When the full-time siren sounded, a sea of ​​red erupted and tears flowed easily.

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Even for the Tongan supporters — who have a reputation for being ‘extra’ — it was on another level because it wasn’t about the World Cup qualification: it was about feeling like winners again.

A fan embraces captain Sonatane Takulua (right) after Tonga’s assertive win over Hong Kong.(ABC News: Ali Almond)

Tonga lost all three of its previous matches in the Pacific Nations Cup, with its trio of star recruits proving to be fizzers.

Israel Folau is sidelined for months with a hamstring injury after playing only 30 minutes in Fiji.

Malakai Fekitoa went back to his Irish club with a calf concern and Charles Piutau only committed to two Pacific Nations matches, one being Tonga’s shocking 30-0 loss to Fiji.

It had begun to feel like a curse on the ‘Ikale Tahi.

But all of that was a distant memory as the curtains closed on an entertaining clash with Hong Kong on Saturday night.

A Tongan male rugby union player leads his team in the Sipi Tau.
Takulua was an inspiration as he led Tonga by example.(Getty Images/World Rugby: Peter Wallis)

Tonga made an aggressive start — perhaps too aggressive — with two tries disallowed in the opening 10 minutes following a knock-on and an obstruction play.

But it didn’t take long for Takulua to put one on the board that stuck, sniping at the ruck for the first try of the match.

Hong Kong responded immediately and scored its first try through some slick passing that saw hooker Alex Post go over for a five-pointer in the corner.

Takulua continued to lead from the front, quickly scoring his second try in identical fashion to the first.

It looked like the crowd was in for a real game of rugby.

Tonga tightens its grip

There was a bit of drama later in the first half following an exciting sprint from Hong Kong fullback Nate De Thierry that saw play move into the Tongan 22.

In the ensuring passage of play, Tonga hooker Siua Maile illegally tried to slow the ball down at the ruck and was shown a yellow card, leaving his side with 14 players for 10 minutes.

A woman in sunglasses holds a Tongan flag in the stands of a stadium.
Tongan flags were seen all around Sunshine Coast Stadium.(ABC News: Ali Almond)

Gregor McNeish kicked a penalty goal, closing the gap on the scoreboard to just nine points.

Despite this, Hong Kong got stuck in a defensive pattern of play and failed to take any advantage out of Tonga being a player down. Hong Kong did not score again in the first half.

At this point, the Tongans were feeling so confident they began making creative decisions, such as 150-kilogram prop Ben Tameifuna throwing in at a line-out, which raised a few eyebrows.

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