Tonga produce stunning rally to seal top spot with landmark win over Kiwis
nga completely a memorable comeback as they beat rivals New Zealand for the first time, triumphing 28-22 in a fiercely-contested battle at the Rugby League World Cup.
All eyes were on a capacity Waikato Stadium for the highly-anticipated Group B encounter in Hamilton following the controversial defection of New Zealand and NRL star Jason Taumalolo to developing nation Tonga.
Saturday's grudge match between the two undefeated nations was further heightened when Tonga and New Zealand came together for their traditional pre-match war dances, which made spines tingle and tempers flare.
And Tonga overcame a 16-2 half-time deficit thanks to David Fusitua's hat-trick to stun New Zealand and seal top spot en route to the quarter-finals, potentially avoiding reigning world champions Australia in the Finals.
It was also Tonga's first victory against a top-tier nation at the World Cup as they look ahead to a last-eight meeting against either Lebanon or France, while the Kiwis will face Fiji.
The Kiwis made a host of changes following their 74-6 rout of Scotland last week, the likes of veterans Simon Mannering and Thomas Leuluai coming into the line-up.
Konrad Hurrell returned to the centres in the only change to Tonga's 17 which overcame Samoa 32-18 last time out.
New Zealand started slow in front of a deafening crowd as Sio Siua Taukeiaho's early penalty gave Tonga a 2-0 advantage before the tournament co-hosts hit back with two tries in eight minutes from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Jordan Rapana.
After Watene-Zelezniak managed to keep the ball in play down the flank and cross over in the 20th minute, Rapana doubled the lead and gave the Kiwis a 10-2 cushion with a diving effort seven minutes later.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck added a third try on the stroke of half-time as New Zealand took a 16-2 lead into the break.
But Tonga came storming back in the second half, scoring 22 unanswered points to hit the front following a breathtaking spell of rugby.
A Fusitua treble and tries from Tuimoala Lolohea and William Hopoate put the Tongans 22-16 ahead in the 66th minute.
Tuivasa-Sheck stemmed the flow and set up a grandstand finish with eight minutes remaining as New Zealand reduced the gap to two points but Fusitua's late try ended the Kiwis' hopes in a nail-biting conclusion.