RLWC: Taumalolo leads Tonga to epic upset
JASON Taumalolo 1, New Zealand 0.
Taumalolo has rubbed salt into New Zealand's wounds, with the Tongan turncoat helping his side conjure a 28-22 boilover to stun the Kiwis and frank the arrival of a new World Cup force.
The World Cup final is now within reach for the two-tier nation after Taumalolo and hat-trick hero David Fusitu'a inspired Tonga's epic fightback from a 16-2 deficit to leave the Kiwis in disarray.
Before a sellout crowd of 24,041, the stands of Waikato Stadium shook, literally, as the Tongans scored four tries in a stunning 17-minute second-half blitz to clinch bragging rights in the ultimate grudge match.
The victory turned the World Cup schedule on its head. The Kiwis face a daunting semi-final showdown with Australia if they beat Fiji in the quarter-finals, while Tonga are likely to face England in the final four by beating Lebanon.
For Taumalolo, it represents sweet vindication.
Six weeks ago, the Cowboys wrecking ball dropped a World Cup bombshell by rejecting a Kiwi jumper and defecting to Tonga, prompting New Zealand coach David Kidwell to lash him for his betrayal.
But Taumalolo had the last laugh, charging for 120 metres, while fellow defector Andrew Fifita amassed 106m as the Tongans showed immense heart to overturn what seemed an unassailable deficit.
Trailing 16-2 at half-time, the braveheart Tongans somehow held their nerve.
Fusitu'a crossed twice in the 48th and 59th minutes before Kiwi prop Russell Packer had a brain explosion, throwing the 62nd-minute intercept for Tui Lolohea, who streaked away to give Tonga a dramatic 18-16 lead.
Fullback Will Hopoate then crashed over before Fusitu'a delivered the final bullet, sealing his treble two minutes from time to send thousands of Tongans fans into fits of delirium.
New Zealand will be gutted by their implosion. They were easily the better side in the opening stanza, but with victory in sight, the Kiwis inexplicably fell apart under a torrent of unforced errors.
The fireworks began before a ball was kicked. Performing the haka, New Zealand advanced to eyeball the Tongans, prompting 200cm Kiwi giant Nelson Asofa-Solomona to poke rival prop Andrew Fifita in the chest.
Tonga replied via Taumalolo, who formed the centrepiece of their war dance. He stared down the Kiwis and pointed to the sky. It was a symbolic statement of aggression and commitment to the red jumper. Surely, Taumalolo can never play for New Zealand again.
The pro-Tonga crowd lapped up the testosterone-fuelled theatre. But execution, not emotion, wins football games. When the dust settled, New Zealand sooner found their rhythm, despite the Tongans enjoying more possession and better field position.
A seventh-minute Tongan penalty was a small reward for their territorial advantage, but the Kiwis forced a momentum shift, their speedy backs scoring three tries in 18 minutes for a 16-2 half-time lead.
With their pride on the line, the Tongans found their heart. The World Cup is alive. For all their critics, Taumalolo and Fifita have helped bring credibility to international rugby league.
TONGA 28 (D Fusitua 3 W Hopoate T Lolohea tries S Taukeiaho 3 T Lolohea goals) NEW ZEALAND 22 (R Tuivasa-Sheck 2 J Rapana D Watene-Zelezniak tries S Johnson 3 goals) at Waikato Stadium. Referee: Gerard Sutton.