With a population of just over 100,000, Tonga has constantly defied the odds with impressive performances on rugby’s international stage.
Boasting one of the most decorated careers in the Tongan rugby environment is Siale Piutau. The centre donned the red jersey for nine years and became the second most capped captain of the island nation in the process. More recently, the 34-year-old led Tonga to Rugby World Cup 2019 before announcing his international retirement.
Piutau sat down with World Rugby and spoke about some of the most notable wins in the history of Tongan rugby.
France at Rugby World Cup 2011
Tonga faced France in their final pool match at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, where a big bonus point victory would secure a maiden appearance in the knockout rounds. The Ikale Tahi fell short of that target but recorded one of the most notable underdog victories in the history of Rugby World Cup.
After losing to the All Blacks 41-10 in the tournament’s opener at Eden Park, Tonga later lost to Canada by five points before defeating Japan 31-18.
Piutau started in all four matches, and reflecting on his first Rugby World Cup, remembered that his side were full of confidence ahead of the clash against Les Bleus.
“When we first arrived in New Zealand, that welcoming that we received at the airport, the whole airport was in lockdown because people had parked on the motorways,” Piutau told World Rugby.
“The support throughout the whole tournament that we received from the supporters, family and friends picked up the boys massively.”
France led Tonga by just three points 25 minutes in before individual brilliance broke the game wide open.
Playing with front-foot ball after a 20-metre line break from scrum-half Taniela Moa, a Kurt Morath crossfield kick found winger Suka Hufanga with a kind bounce. Hufanga fended off French flanker Julien Bonnaire to run in for what would be Tonga’s only try of the match.
“The funny thing is that as we got through that game and started believing that we could win, we didn’t worry about going for the four tries.”
While the 19-14 win wasn’t enough to secure them a spot in the next stage, Tonga had won the day.
First-ever victory over Scotland
13 months after defeating France, Tonga were out to claim another victory over a higher-ranked nation when they faced Scotland in Aberdeen.
They would be without Piutau, who pulled out of the tour because his wife had given birth to their fourth child.
“I remember waking up early just to stream [the game] online. I think it was massive coming off the back of 2011, a great win over France.
“The boys rolled into the tournament knowing that this was possible, that we’d beaten France the year before.”
It was a match dominated by penalty kicks, with Scotland leading by six before Tukulua Lokotui crossed over for Tonga from a pick and drive.
After more penalties, Tonga scored the next try of the match 14 minutes later, when, out of nowhere, Fetu’u Vainikolo found space and ran 60 metres untouched. Winger Tim Visser looked all but set to attempt a tackle, but he fell for a dummy from Vainikolo, whose try gave the Sea Eagles a 18-15 lead.
With eight minutes to play, a Fangatapu Apikotoa penalty gave Tonga a six-point lead which didn’t change, defeating Scotland for the first time with the scoreline 15-21.
An all-time classic against Italy in 1999
Tonga had only ever won one match at Rugby World Cup heading into the fourth iteration of the tournament in 1999.
The Sea Eagles had a mountain to climb in order to rewrite history, drawn in their toughest pool yet alongside New Zealand, Italy and England.
After losing 45-9 to the All Blacks in Bristol, Tonga faced Italy, who themselves had only won one game in each of their three previous Rugby World Cup appearances.
After trailing 6-0 in the first half, tries to Taunaholo Taufahema and Sateki Tu’ipulotu saw Tonga gain control, leading 18-12 at the break.
But the real drama came in the dying stages, with Tonga trailing 18-22. Replacement Isileli Fatani gave his side the lead with a converted try, which was effectively cancelled out moments later by a long-range Diego Dominguez penalty.
The two sides were locked at 25-25.
The match reached its climax after the siren had sounded, with Sateki Tu’ipulotu scoring a 45-metre drop goal to send his teammates and the crowd into a frenzy.
“It was massive just in terms of, for a young Tongan kid growing up, and seeing that these things were possible, seeing that the likes of Tonga could beat a tier one nation like Italy.”
A big surprise Down Under
The 1973 tour of Australia saw a relatively unknown Tongan team face the Wallabies for the first time – and create history in the process.
After losing the first match 30-12 in Sydney, Tonga made the trip north to Queensland to play the second of two tests at Ballymore Stadium. The Sea Eagles would go on to etch themselves into rugby folklore with their ferocious tackling and tidy skills in attack.
After trailing early, Tonga took the lead in the first half with winger Samiu Latu finishing off a set piece play that started at the lineout.
In the second half, captain Kisione Mafi made an impressive breakthrough the heart of the Australian defence, which led to winger Isikeli Vave’s try in the next phase.
Late in the match, Tonga scored their third and final try through centre Tali Kavapalu, who countered Australia’s attack by picking up a dropped ball and running close to the length of the field.
The visitors’ received a round of applause as they walked off Ballymore’s field, with that one match forever reminding the sport of the skill, threat and potential of Tongan rugby.
Beating Italy in 2016
Tonga claimed their 100th test victory by defeating Spain 28-13 in Madrid, before backing that up with a tense 20-17 win over the USA a week later.
Their next opponents were Italy, who were full of confidence after coming off their first victory over South Africa, winning 20-18.
Italy crossed first through prop Lorenzo Cittadini, who peeled off the back of a driving maul and ran 10 metres on his way to the try line.
Despite a yellow card to Tino Mapapalangi, Tonga managed to reduce the deficit with a penalty while down a player, before closing the gap to one with another after the break.
With under half an hour to play, the visitors managed to capture the lead for the first time in the contest with Piutau crossing for Tonga’s only try of the match.
While Italy regained the lead soon after with a converted try, two yellow cards in the second half more than kept Tonga in the test match.
With a minute to play and trailing by one point, an infringement at the breakdown gave Takulua the chance to create history. The scrum-half stepped up and converted the penalty from just under 40 metres out, with the Tongan players jubilant.
“It was a back-and-forth game, and it came right down to the end,” reflected Piutau.
“It was an awesome experience to not only lead the boys that tour, but to grow the sense of belief back in the team. The year before at the 2015 World Cup, a lot of us were disappointed in the way that we played so it was great to get those victories.”