Rugby league is still basking in the glory of Mate Ma’a Tonga’s spectacular 28-22 win over New Zealand in Hamilton on Saturday – one of the great days in Test history, and arguably the finest moment the Rugby League World Cup has ever experienced.
The ‘grudge match’ build-up, the spine-tingling war dances, the deafening crowd that has been described as one of the most fanatical ever at a New Zealand sporting event, the explosive opening exchanges, the Kiwis’ near-perfect first half, and finally Tonga’s unstoppable performance in the second 40 to overturn a 14-point deficit.
Our game, or any sport for that matter, doesn’t get much better.
Tonga’s watershed success was achieved via the perfect storm of a talented group of youngsters and veterans bolstered by a clutch of world-class defectors, a massive and passionate fanbase, and the performance of a lifetime – and their World Cup journey is only just getting started.
But unless Tonga go all the way and roll Australia or New Zealand in the December 2 final in Brisbane, the barnburner at Waikato Stadium is destined to be remember as the essential takeaway from the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Likewise, as the Kangaroos stormed to a resounding recapture of the Cup four years ago, the tournament was defined by its great underdog moments.
The 2013 edition was energised by the shock fairytale runs of Scotland and USA, who knocked off pool heavyweights Tonga and Wales respectively to advance to an unlikely quarter-final berth. The Tomahawks’ heroics in their debut World Cup campaign even sparked a tribute song by The Wiggles.
Tonga’s momentous RLWC victory also deserves to be hoisted alongside the standard-bearer of Rugby World Cup boilovers, achieved just two years ago but already etched into sporting folklore.
Japan’s epic 34-32 upset of perennial contenders South Africa set the 2015 Rugby World Cup alight on just the second day of the tournament, emphatically quashing any notion that the group stage would be an inevitably dull procession until the eight (mostly predetermined) heavyweights assembled for the ‘real’ games in the knockout phase.
Only a few hours early, Georgia also sprung a king-sized surprise with a 17-10 defeat of quarter-final hopefuls Tonga.
Like the Tongan rugby league team’s win on Saturday, besides the myriad knockout phase scenarios the stunning result created, it was the way Japan pulled off the win that was so stirring.
Fighting back from 29-22 down to level with a brilliant try with 11 minutes to go. Falling behind again via a South Africa penalty but keeping their composure. Holding the ball for 20 incredible phases as they worked the ball from their own 22 to the Springboks’ try-line, then twice turning down the opportunity to take a penalty shot at goal that would have drawn the match.
An honourable but heartbreaking loss or a euphoric victory. Death or glory. No in-between.
A nerve-jangling scrum marathon, another seven phases and then, finally, ex-Otago winger Karne Hesketh’s now-iconic try in the left-hand corner in the 85th minute.
It was impossible not to get swept up in the emotion – the elation of the players, the tears in the grandstands (particularly the little old Japanese bloke that the cameraman picked out frequently during the dying stages), the noise and atmosphere at Brighton Community Stadium (a decidedly pedestrian name for the location of such a momentous event) and Eddie Jones’ understated celebrations up in the coach’s box.
Again like Tonga’s RLWC fight-back against the Kiwis, it was electrifying and, at the risk of stepping into the realms of hyperbole, life-affirming.
Making that triumph all the more incredible is the fact Japan has been a perpetual World Cup underachiever, competing in all seven previous tournaments but winning just one of their 21 matches – way back in 1991.
These are the types of unforgettable matches that define World Cups as much as the championship encounters at the business end.
Western Samoa’s 16-13 triumph over history-steeped Wales on Rugby World Cup debut in 1991 was one of the finest. Fiji subjected Wales to another shock defeat in 2007, while Argentina stunned France at the same tournament. Eventual runners-up France were on the wrong end of a boilover again in 2011, going down 19-14 to Tonga, two weeks after Australia crashed to a 15-6 loss at the hands of Ireland.
All of those bombshell results are held in equally high esteem (in some cases, even more so) as the dour deciders between two giants of world rugby that concluded those tournaments.
The same sentiment rings true across World Cups in other sports.
Comparative lightweights Ireland (2011) and Bangladesh (2015) knocked over England at the previous two Cricket World Cups, Kenya stunned West Indies in 1996, and then-minnows Sri Lanka set the tone with a massive upset of Australia in 1983.
USA (1-0 v England in 1950) and North Korea (1-0 v Italy in 1966) sprung shock results in the FIFA World Cup’s early heyday. Algeria’s greatest sporting moment came when their football side – 1000-1 outsiders – downed World Cup favourites West Germany in the 1982 tournament.
Cameroon were the sensations of the 1990 World Cup after beating defending champs Argentina. Senegal beat France in the upset of the 2002 group stage, before South Korea went on a giant-killing spree with knockout wins over Italy and Spain.
Japan’s failure to capitalise and qualify for a historic quarter-final berth in 2015 did little to dim the euphoria surrounding their defeat of the ’Boks.
Tonga’s prospects of doing something special in the coming weeks is far greater, but win or lose in the quarters, semis or final, the island nation has already carved out an indelible memory for the narrative of sporting World Cup upsets.