Tonga Progress to Rugby World Cup Qualifier After win over Cook Islands

Sun, Jul 25, 2021, 12:00 AM
Oceania Rugby
by Oceania Rugby
'Ikale Tahi's Paula Mahe scores over Cook Islands during RWC2023 Asia / Pacific Qualifier in Pukekohe July 2021
'Ikale Tahi's Paula Mahe scores over Cook Islands during RWC2023 Asia / Pacific Qualifier in Pukekohe July 2021

Tonga is through to the Rugby World Cup 2023 Asia/Pacific Play-off after defeating the Cook Islands 54-10 in Pukekohe on Saturday.

The opening of the match was dominated by handling errors, with the Kuki’s speed off the line, causing some issues for ‘Ikale Tahi.

As the pressure built the Cook Islands were first to score, with scrumhalf Tokahirere Sopoaga converting a penalty to lead 3-0.

Tonga gained some momentum after the first 20 minutes, as their front row began to dominate the scrum.

Holding in the ball, Sione Tu’ipolotu quickly sent the ball wide from the scrum, allowing winger Fifita Walter to charge down the sideline, breaking three tackles to score Tonga’s first points. Flyhalf James Faiva converting to lead 7-3.

A solid carry from centre Sam Vaka, saw the Tongans get over the advantage line opening up space on the left for Walter, who broke another three tackles, setting up Vaka for the team’s second try, and a 14-3 lead after Faiva’s conversion.

The Cook Islands responded quickly, with hooker Ben Tou charging over after a lineout, becoming the second Kuki in history to score a try against ‘Ikale Tahi. Sopoaga’s conversion reduced the deficit to four.

Tonga finished the first half strong, adding another two tries before halftime, to go into the break leading 26-10.

Two quick tries to captain Sonatane Takulua as play resumed in the second half blew out the lead to 30, as Tu’ipolotu grabbed a second and Paula Mahe scored on debut to end the game 54-10.

‘Ikale Tahi coach Toutai Kefu was happy with his team’s performance against a valiant Cook Island side.

"You just don't know about those games, and the first 10 minutes they put up a really, really good fight," Kefu said.

"We knew if we kept the pressure on, we could finally break them and we thought probably just after halftime we could feel a little more comfortable, but to their credit we understand all the challenges they go through, so we're very happy and relieved to get the win tonight."

Captain Sonatane Takulua said the team was looking to build upon this win as they prepare to face the Asian champions.

“It means a lot giving us a positive outcome to finish off our campaign. We have one more to go. We just got to build on and take the goods from here and work towards the last game.”

Struggling to field a team, Takulua shared his appreciation for the players as he tried to hold back the tears.

“Means a lot. We scrambled for players. Credit to these guys that put their hands up and want to carry the country and put on the red jersey. It meant a lot to me. These are my heroes. They got my back; I got their back too.”

Cook Islands coach Nathan Robinson was pleased with the effort from his team and is grateful for the opportunity.

“Obviously the result didn’t go our way but I thought we had moments where we competed well,” Robinson said.

“Once we got into our work, we looked good. We had some good touches and the boys didn’t back down. We showed if given the opportunity to play more games of similar calibre we will get better.

“Our boys have done our small nation proud. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from our boys. Thanks to World Rugby for the opportunity and fingers crossed we get more games coming in the near future.”

With the win, Tonga will progress through to the Asia/Pacific Play-off and will play the 2021 Asia Rugby champions – either Hong Kong, Malaysia or Korea, with the winner joining South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Europe 2 qualifier in Pool B at Rugby World Cup 2023.

Full Match results can be found here