Rugby World Cup year dawned with dreams of a place in France still alive for five of the 86 nations who had taken part in the qualification process that began in the Principality of Andorra back in September 2004.
However only two from Morocco, Portugal, Uruguay, Korea and Tonga would join the other 18 qualifiers for the fifth Rugby World Cup, the other three consigned to picking themselves up to try again for the 2011 tournament in New Zealand.
The five teams given a second chance to qualify through the Répechage were split into two sections, one to provide the final qualifier in Pool A with former champions England and South Africa, the other for Pool C with inaugural winners New Zealand.
Oceania representatives Tonga found Korea standing between them and a Rugby World Cup spot for the third time in a row, the Asian side having lost 140-41 and 194-0 on aggregate to the Pacific islanders in 1999 and 2003 respectively.
This time, though, Tonga and Korea would meet in a one-off match to determine the Répechage 2 qualifier that would join defending champions England, South Africa, USA and Samoa in Pool A in France.
Tonga power through to France
Tonga had missed out on the two automatic passages for the Oceania region after losing to Fiji and Samoa twice in round three, but entered the Répechage after beating the Cook Islands 167-10 on aggregate in the fourth round playoff in July 2006.
Korea’s passage into Répechage 2 was not as convincing as Tonga’s, a 23-5 defeat of host nation Hong Kong in the three-team tournament that comprised the final round of the Asian qualifiers enough to see them finish as Asia 2.
The sole Rugby World Cup spot for the Asian region again went to Japan, their newly appointed coach John Kirwan overseeing the defeats of Hong Kong 52-3 and then Korea 54-0 at the tournament moved from Sri Lanka because of political unrest.
Tonga and Korea therefore converged on a hot and sunny Waitemata Park in Auckland, New Zealand, for another Répechage encounter on 10 March. The Korean supporters may have drowned out the Tongans in the crowd, but on the pitch it was a different story.
The Pacific islanders’ height and weight advantage was simply too much for Korea and Tonga scored 13 tries with Hudson Tonga’uiha, Fangatapu Apikotoa, Vaea Poteki and Sione Fonua both crossing twice in the 83-3 win – Hong Jun-Ki kicking Korea’s only points with a second half penalty.
By the time these two nations took to the field, one of the quintet had already seen their dreams come to an end – African representatives Morocco having lost their two-legged affair with Portugal 26-20 on aggregate in late January.
The first leg in the Stade de COC in Casablanca had seen Portugal, the higher placed of the nations in the IRB World Rankings, edge a close encounter 10-5. Then, a week later in Lisbon, Portugal held off a strong Moroccan fight back to win the second leg 16-15.
Portugal daring to dream
For Portugal, who had entered the Répechage after losing the European playoff 28-14 to Georgia, the dream of a first Rugby World Cup appearance was within touching distance with Americas zone representative Uruguay standing between them and France 2007.
Ironically the two sides had meet in the Répechage eight years earlier, Uruguay winning 46-9 at home and then 33-24 in Portugal to qualify for their first Rugby World Cup. This time the first leg would be in Lisbon with Uruguay fielding 15 veterans of RWC 2003.
Portugal though are a much improved team under coach Tomaz Morais, and tries by Diogo Gama and Diogo Coutinho saw them lead 12-0 before Uruguay captain Rodrigo Capó’s 78th minute try gave his side hope for the second leg in Montevideo.
A seven point lead with nothing given Uruguay’s proud record at home, their defeat by USA Eagles in the Americas playoff their only home RWC qualifier loss since 1993 and with 7,000 passionate fans roaring Los Teros’ on anything could happen.
However Uruguay’s hopes were dealt a blow when lock Juan Carlos Bado was sent off in the third minute for foul play, and despite throwing everything at Portugal in the last 15 minutes they could only win 18-12, meaning Portugal progressed 24-23 on aggregate.
Uruguay’s hopes of a third successive Rugby World Cup were over, but 932 after the first qualifying match had taken place, it was Portugal celebrating having becoming the 20th and final nation heading to France in September.
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