Pacific Islanders booked their place in France next year with a 44-22 win over Hong Kong

Tonga qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023

We now know 19 of the 20 teams that will compete at next year’s Rugby World Cup in France after Tonga beat Hong Kong 44-22 to secure the Asia-Pacific One spot.

Co-captain and scrum-half Sonatane Takulua scored a hat-trick at the Sunshine Coast Stadium in Australia – with England coach Eddie Jones in the crowd – as Tonga booked their place at France 2023.

They go into Pool B at next year’s tournament, where they will face reigning world champions South Africa as well as Ireland, Romania and Scotland.

“We were blessed with the energy from the crowd here,” said Takulua after the victory. “I was lucky enough to get three tries but it wasn’t just me, it was the effort from all the boys, and to get the win is a big relief.”

Tonga were without three of the big names who have switched allegiance in the past year. Former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa as well as ex-Wallaby Israel Folau were ruled out of the RWC 2023 qualifier with injury.

Ultimately, though, their power and physicality, both at the set-piece and in open play, proved too much for Hong Kong, who did not have enough ball to get their dangerous runners involved more often.

Given the professional experience of those in the Tonga ranks compared to their Hong Kong counterparts and the fact that Hong Kong had played only one match since 2019 prior to this – the Asia Rugby Championship final victory over South Korea – the result was to be expected.

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Still, Hong Kong have another opportunity to make it to France 2023. They move into the Final Qualification Tournament, which is due to take place in November and also involves Kenya, Portugal and the USA. The winner of that completes Pool C, with Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Wales.

Tonga qualify for Rugby World Cup 2023

Tonga did not win a match at the recent Pacific Nations Cup, but they were quick to make an impact in this qualifier.

In fact, they crossed the line twice in the first five minutes, but both tries were ruled out by the TMO – the first from Tima Fainga’anuku (older brother of new All Blacks wing Leicester) for an earlier knock-on and the second by Solomone Funaki for obstruction at the preceding lineout.

They eventually got points on the board in the 11th minute when William Havili slotted a penalty and Takulua scored the first try shortly afterwards, the scrum-half sniping over after a strong midfield run from Fetuli Paea.

Tonga qualify for Rugby World Cup

Sonatane Takulua scored a hat-trick in Tonga’s win (Getty Images)

A Tongan error from the restart allowed Hong Kong to score their first try. Quick hands created space out wide for hooker Alexander Post to score in the corner and it was 10-5 at the end of the opening quarter.

Takulua got his second when he picked the ball up at the base of a ruck on the Hong Kong line. He looked to have lost possession as he went to touch down but a TMO review showed he had managed to ground it on the line.

Hong Kong reduced the deficit with a Gregor McNeish penalty after half an hour, but Havili kicked another three-pointer shortly afterwards. The TMO ruled out another Tonga try, this one from Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, before the break due to a knock-on so it was 20-8 at half-time.

Tonga started the second period much like the first and this time they did get the rewards on the scoreboard. First, Takulua completed his hat-trick, spotting space to the right of a ruck close to the line. Next Fisi’ihoi powered over from a strong lineout drive.

Tonga qualify for Rugby World Cup

Gregor McNeish tries to stop Tonga’s Siua Maile (Getty Images)

Then Telusa Veainu and Anzelo Tu’itavuki scored within a couple of minutes of each other around the hour mark. Full-back Veainu went over from a set move from a scrum in the Hong Kong 22 and wing Tu’itavuki broke from his own half to score a great individual try.

Manu Paea thought he had wrapped up the match for Tonga when he burst 50-plus metres down the wing but again the try was ruled out by the TMO, this time because the ball had hit referee Damon Murphy in the build-up.

Instead, it was Hong Kong who had the final say with two late tries from Matt Worley. The first came when McNeish kicked cross-field for the Bedford winger, who plucked the ball from the air and touched down in the 77th minute.

Then, with the clock in the red, Bryn Phillips kicked downfield after Hong Kong secured possession in their own half and Worley won the race to regather the ball and score.

So Tonga are through to France 2023 but Hong Kong will no doubt take confidence from their performance, and particularly how they finished the match, into the repechage.

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