Tonga take control to eliminate Japan
Story and Photo: www.rugbyworldcup.com
WHANGAREI, 21 Sept. - Tonga wing Fetu'u Vainikolo has scored plenty of tries at Northland Events Centre, but none compares to the one with which he sealed the Sea Eagles' 31-18 win against Japan on Wednesday.
Vainikolo called the Whangarei stadium home when he played for Northland in 2007/08, and returned to his try-scoring form with a dashing run in the 54th minute.
Kurt Morath's conversion took the score to 28-13, and while Japan did score one final try in the 63rd minute, Vainikolo's effort handed Tonga the momentum. He rated it the best try he has ever scored.
"Oh mate, the best one ever," an excited Vainikolo said. "That would be the best one ever, best one ever!"
While it was the first time the teams had met in RWC history, Japan had won the past five matches dating back to Tonga's 57-14 win in Fukuoka in 2006. Tonga's victory also eliminated Japan from the tournament.
In a match both teams had targeted as a must-win, Tonga's control of the breakdown, Japan's mistakes and six out of seven converted kicks from Tonga fly half Morath proved the difference.
The match went try for try in the first half, before Morath converted two penalties to put Tonga ahead 18-13 at the break. Morath's opposite James Arlidge had a torrid first half, missing his first two conversions before collecting a yellow to spend 10 minutes in the sin bin for being offside in the 31th minute.
Japan conceded eight penalties to Tonga's four in that first half and Morath said a focus on defence had paid off.
"We worked pretty hard on our defence this week and we managed to put them under a bit of pressure," he said. "And when you put teams under pressure they make mistakes."
Japan second row Luke Thompson said the mistakes were the hardest part to accept.
"That's what guts us. If we played well and lost, then so be it," Thompson said. "They managed to slow the game down and play their style and that's what won them the game."
Japan coach John Kirwan, who equalled the record of most RWC matches involved in with a total of 22 as a coach and player, did not mask his disappointment.
Kirwan's goal was to beat both Tonga and Canada at this tournament so Japan could finish third in Pool A and qualify automatically for RWC 2015 in England.
Now, the best the Brave Blossoms can do is try to produce their first RWC victory since 1991 - a 52-8 win over Zimbabwe - against Canada on 27 September in Napier.
"We have no excuse for tonight," Kirwan said. "We were beaten at the ruck but we have to cop that on the chin and wake up tomorrow and work on winning our first game in 20 years."