Samoa edge Tonga in Hamilton to qualify for 2023 World Cup
The win earned Samoa a 79-28 aggregate victory over their Pacific Island neighbours after they defeated their Pacific Island neighbours 42-13 at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland in the first leg of the tie last week.
As a result, Samoa will compete at rugby’s next global showpiece event in France as Oceania 1, placing them alongside England, Japan, Argentina and Americas 2 (likely to be the USA, Canada or Uruguay) in Pool D.
The victory to secure qualification two years early will be a relief for the Samoans, who had to combat slippery and wet conditions to overcome a bruising Tongan outfit in front a small but boisterous crowd.
Despite the unappealing weather, Samoa weren’t afraid to throw the ball around as first-five Rodney Iona put his teammates in the wider channels into space time and time again with some lovely cut out balls.
That attacking output, which came was the rain eased, was balanced out by some neat kicking as both sides looked to plug the corners when the drizzle was pouring down.
However, in spite of Tonga’s best defensive efforts, led by bullish No 8 Nasi Manu, it was Samoa who struck first as Iona found wing Ed Fidow with a cracking long ball to put the Worcester Warriors speedster over the tryline in the right-hand corner.
Faiva’s boot wasn’t able to keep Tonga in the contest for much longer, though, as Hurricanes halfback Jonathan Taumateine finished off a scintillating attacking move that was again kickstarted by Iona’s distribution.
Cutting out numerous Tongan defenders with another sweeping pass out to the left, Iona found Hawke’s Bay wing Neria Fomai in open space, and the Highlanders injury reserve busted through four tackles before linking up with Tomasi Alosio, who in turn shovelled it onto Taumateine to cap off a ripper of a team try.
Trailing 20-3 at the break, Tonga needed to be the first to score after half-time, and that they did through reserve hooker Jay Fonokalafi, who burrowed over from close range following a long period of sustained pressure deep in Samoan territory.
Not only did Tonga score first, but they also scored second, as Auckland loose forward Sione Tuipulotu crossed the line in similar fashion to Fonokalafi just five minutes later.
Fiji head coach Vern Cotter knows his side did well in last week’s clash against the All Blacks in Dunedin, but he’s also aware improvements are needed ahead of Saturday’s clash in Hamilton.
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Hulking second-five Nikolai Foliaki could have easily scored Tonga’s second after fielding an inch-perfect cross-kick from Faiva before using Fidow as a speed bump moments before Tuipulotu’s try, but the Samoan wing did enough to stop him from breaching the tryline by wrapping himself around the midfielder’s bootlaces.
Those back-to-back tries seemed to give Tonga a glimmer of hope of salvaging a result even though the aggregate score looked out of reach, and that gave Toutai Kefu’s squad a noticeable boost as the game entered its final quarter.
First it was star prop Ben Tameifuna who burst through the Samoan defensive line from the middle of the park, and then it was the hard-running of Faiva that put Samoa under a mountain of pressure.
That onslaught proved too much for loosehead prop Tietie Tuimauga, who was sin binned for repeated infringements in the 65th minute.
Nevertheless, Seilala Mapasua’s men held firm to win not one but two turnovers deep inside their own half to deny the Tongans a try that would have brought them within one score of their arch rivals.
Instead, it was Hawke’s Bay midfielder Stacey Ili who had the next say as he regathered a delicately-placed chip kick by Iona to scamper past the Tongan defensive line and score the final try of the encounter.
Counties Manukau prop Kalolo Tuiloma then closed out the affair with a ground-and-pound effort to crash over underneath the sticks and give Samoa their second successive win over Tonga in the space of a week.
With World Cup football now a certainty, Samoa can rest assured knowing they can now use the next two years to best prepare themselves for France 2023.
As for Tonga, their attention will now turn to next week’s one-off clash with the Cook Islands in Pukekohe as a place for the Oceania 2 spot at the World Cup goes on the line.
Tonga 15 (Tries to Jay Fonokalafi and Sione Tuipulotu; conversion and penalty to James Faiva)
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