HIGASHIOSAKA, OSAKA PREF. – Tonga beat the United States 31-19 on Sunday to avoid finishing last in Pool C at the Rugby World Cup, helped by a farewell try from retiring captain Siale Piutau on his birthday.
Piutau scored Tonga’s third try with just under 20 minutes to go. Fullback Telusa Veainu skipped in to dive on a chip through after the final gong to seal victory after the U.S. forced a nervous finish.
U.S. flanker Tony Lamborn’s score up against the post with three minutes to go closed the gap to five points and made it interesting.
Tonga went back down the other end and Veainu, guilty of throwing away a couple of tries earlier, finally got it right and sealed it.
The Tongans leave Japan with a win and avoid a sixth straight loss at Rugby World Cups, which would have been a national record.
The U.S. didn’t avoid a 10th straight defeat, which the Americans’ worst run at the Rugby World Cup. The Americans have gone through two entire World Cups without winning a game.
Both teams were eliminated from contention at this World Cup and seeking their first win of the tournament.
Before kickoff, the U.S. and Tongan players stood in silence with heads bowed in a moment’s silence for those affected by Typhoon Hagibis. The powerful typhoon ripped through parts of Japan’s eastern Pacific coast on Saturday, bringing damaging winds, torrential rain and flooding, and leaving at least 19 people dead and more than a dozen missing.
Tonga should have won by more and left at least five tries out there at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, four of them missed in the first half.
The Tongans got four tries anyway through loosehead prop Sigfried Fisi’ihoi, centers Malietoa Hingano and Piutau, and that clincher from Veainu.
Fisi’ihoi bashed over for the first in the 17th minute. Tonga missed three great chances before that and Fisi’ihoi also dropped the ball when over the tryline at the end of the half.
The U.S. replied to Fisi’ihoi’s score with two in four minutes from replacement back Mike Te’o. Te’o was on the field as an injury replacement on the right wing for captain Blaine Scully.
Teo’s first was created by a one-hand offload from No. 8 Cam Dolan. He sped away and went round behind the posts. His second came from a big overlap on the right and an over-the-top pass by fullback Mike Hooley.
The Americans somehow led 12-7 at halftime despite conceding twice as many meters as the Tongans and missing 31 tackles in the first 40. A first win at the World Cup since 2011 seemed on.
At the very start, the Tongans wasted two breaks to within a couple of meters of the U.S. line by scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua. Veainu ruined a third chance inside the first 13 minutes when his pass went astray with a two-man overlap waiting to score.
Fisi’ihoi missed out on a second when he dropped the ball as he charged for the line. U.S. scrumhalf Ruben de Haas was tackling him but he still should have held on.
Veainu wasted yet another chance early in the second when he was clear on the left and just needed to find wing Viliami Lolohea outside him for the try. The pass was too far in front of Lolohea and flew into touch.
Centers Hingano and Piutau didn’t waste their chances. They went over in the space of four minutes in the 58th and 62nd to put Tonga ahead for good.
Hingano finished a long counter from the Tongans, started with a kick out of defense and chase by Veainu, who put right all of his wrongs in the final 20-odd minutes.
Piutau fittingly sliced through to score the penultimate try for Tonga. He and flanker Sione Kalamafoni were making a Tongan record 12th appearance at the World Cup and are both retiring from internationals after this game.
“We’ve been talking all week about playing well and finishing on a high,” said Piutau, who was named man of the match.
“We’ve had some adversity but hopefully we’ve come up with a performance that made our people proud. We came with a mindset to leave it all out there, leave no stones unturned and I think we did that today.”
Eagles skipper Blaine Scully reflected on his team’s performance after the match.
“Our mentality and our mindset is to stay in games until the last minute,” said Scully.
“It’s just small margins but that’s test rugby, that’s World Cup rugby. It’s been a phenomenal tournament.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5