Tonga made a victorious return to the revamped Teufaiva Stadium with a 30-26 defeat of Samoa in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2017 opener on Saturday.
The win, played out before a crowd of 10,000 in the first test match in Tonga for eight years, keeps Tonga’s hopes of securing the Oceania 1 or Oceania 2 spots at Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.
The top two sides across the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cup will secure passage to Japan 2019. The other will face a European side in a bid to qualify as the Play-off Winner and avoid the global repechage tournament.
Having lost to both Fiji and Samoa last year, the ‘Ikale Tahi knew that victory was a must if they were to remain in contention for the top two and scrum-half Sonatane Takulua was their stand-out player.
It was Samoa who opened the scoring with a seventh-minute penalty by fly-half Tusi Pisi, but the hosts responded with tries from flanker Nili Latu and debutant full-back Atieli Pakalani to lead 14-3 after 16 minutes.
Pisi cut the deficit with a penalty and then converted number eight Faifili Levave’s try just before the half hour mark to bring Samoa to within one. Tonga continued to attack and were rewarded when Takulua added a penalty, only for Pisi to cancel it out for a 17-16 lead for the hosts at half-time.
The second half started in similar fashion with Takulua and Pisi trading penalties within minutes of the restart. Takulua then grabbed control of the match for his side, converting his own try and then kicking another penalty to make it 30-19 with 30 minutes to play.
Samoa knew they had to score next and began to throw everything at their hosts, earning the reward when centre Kieron Fonotia went over just past the hour mark to cut the deficit to four after Pisi’s conversion.
With three minutes to go Samoa had one final change with a driving maul, but Tonga held them up and celebrated the victory that takes them level with their visitors in the standings on five points, three behind Fiji who visit Nuku’alofa next weekend.