The highly impressive, and fancied, Tonga faced the challenge of makeweights Lebanon as the looked to secure a semi-final spot at the Christchurch Stadium.
Tonga won all of their games in the group stages, including that stunning win over New Zealand last weekend whereas Lebanon have just an opening weekend win over France to their name and they came into today’s game after suffering a 34-0 defeat at the hands of Australia last week.
The bookies set their odds in the certainty that it would be Tonga who would progress.
It took just three minutes for Tuimoala Lolohea to open the Tongan scoring after David Fusita’u broke down the right wing before passing inside. Ata Hingano kicked the extras from in front of the uprights.
Lebanon forced a dropout on seven, and three plays later Mitchell Moses and Anthony Layoun combined to find Adam Doueihi in space who stepped inside and scored from fifteen metres out. Moses added the conversion and the sides were back level.
Lebanon were holding their own in the early exchanges, but as the game progressed the Tongans started to ease into their game.
On eighteen Tonga re-established the lead fate when Fusitu’a went airborne to ground one-handed by the right corner flag after a nice left to right passing move. Hingano was unable to add the conversion from the touchline.
On twenty-two some brilliant last ditch offloading saw a final pass from Andrew Fifita into the hands of Will Hopoate for walk in try. Hingano kicked brilliantly from wide for 16-6 and Tonga were easing clear.
On twenty-six great Tonga tackling denied Layoun as three tacklers wrapped him up into touch.
On the half hour a clumsy try got Lebanon back into the game. A Moses kick was deflected into goal by Jason Taumalolo, missed by the chasing pack, and as the ball bobbled in the Tonga goal area it was eventually grounded by James Elias. Moses added the goal to reduce the margin to just four points. Lebanon weren’t going to give this up without a fight.
Three minutes later Fusitu’a got his second, taking a towering Hingano kick to drop over the line. Hingano added the extras in confident manner for 22-12.
On the stroke of half time a superb Lebanon try again reduced the arrears when Abbas Miski got his hands on a Layoun pinpoint kick to the corner and although Moses missed a difficult conversion there was just six points separating the two sides at the interval.
It had been a terrific first half from Lebanon against a Tongan side who seemed a little off the pace. The Cedars were making a mockery of the bookies odds and causing some concern amongst the mostly Tongan supporting crowd.
Six minutes into the second half and Lebanon appeared to be level when an inside pass from Moses found Doueihi and he jinked to the line to stretch and score. The decision went to the video referee as a try, but was overturned for an obstruction.
Lebanon held down in the tackle on fifty-two and Tonga elected to kick with Hingano slotting over the two pointer from twenty-five metres for an eight point lead.
Moses grounded millimetres short of the line on fifty-six on the last tackle but on sixty-eight they did get their try after keeping the ball alive through a dozen pairs of hands before moving the ball wide right to Miski who crossed the line on the overlap and improved the angle. The Tongan defence looked exhausted as Moses added the conversion to again make it a two point ball game.
It was a nail biting last ten, but the Tongan defence held firm and forced the crucial errors from Lebanon as they held on for a two point victory at 24-22.
Tonga made it into the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth against a Lebanon side who gave their absolute all and who weren’t left wondering ‘what might have been’. All credit to Layoun and Moses who bossed the game for The Cedars and who were almost the architects of a sensational shock win. Tonga made it through but will need to be far better in the semi-final if they are to make it to a World Cup Final showdown.
Despite being eliminated, today was most certainly Lebanon’s day.
Tonga: Hopoate (T), Tupou, Jennings, Hurrell, Fusitu’a (2T), Lolohea (T), Hingano (4G), Fifita, Havili, Ofahengaue, Ma’u, Manu, Taumalolo. Subs: Katoa, Moa , Murdoch-Masila, Pangai.
Lebanon: Layoun, Robinson, Elias (T), Doueihi (T), Miski (2T), Moses (3G), Farah, Mannah, Lichaa, Toal, Kassis, Ellaz, Mamary. Subs: Clark, Sukkar, Moujalli, Wehbe.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.