Tonga ran in four tries and survived a sending off early in the second half en route to a 28-3 rugby win over Canada on Wednesday.
The 15th-ranked Pacific Islanders are gearing up for next month’s World Cup in France. No. 23 Canada, which failed to qualify for the rugby showcase for the first time ever, was seeing its first action since a 43-37 loss to No. 21 Namibia in November.
After a slow start, Canada made inroads on the Tonga defence as the first half wore on but could not convert the opportunities into points and trailed 21-3 at the break. Untidy set pieces did not help the Canadian cause.
The Tongans did not look especially sharp but had enough power and pace to dispatch Canada.
Tonga was reduced to 14 men five minutes into the second half after former All Black George Moala was sent off for a dangerous tackle that left Canadian centre Ben LeSage dazed.
“We need to finish,” said Canada co-captain Lucas Rumball. “We’re going to be very disappointed I think, reviewing this game, looking at the stats and things like that. It felt like we had all the possession, it felt like we had all the ball, it felt like we were playing in the right areas–just not able to finish and putting ourselves under so much pressure. Then they capitalise on our mistakes right away.
“So I think that’s the big takeaway, is it’ll be our ability to finish next week.”
The two teams meet again Monday (Tuesday local time).
Sione Vailanu scored two tries and Sam Moli and Sonatane added singles for Tonga. Takulua kicked four conversions.
Peter Nelson booted a penalty for Canada.
The Tongans, whose roster has been strengthened thanks to recent changes in eligibility rules, came into the game battle-hardened after four recent matches and with home support in their first test match on home soil since 2017.
The Tonga Rugby Union is also marking its centennial.
The game at Teufaiva Stadium kicked off at 3 p.m. local time Thursday (10 p.m. ET Wednesday). Before kickoff, the black-clad Canadians faced the Sipi Tau, the Tongan equivalent of the Haka.
Tonga went ahead in the fourth minute, taking advantage of a scrum penalty to kick deep into Canadian territory. Moli went over at the back of a driving maul from the ensuring lineout with the conversion giving the home side a 7-0 lead.
Nelson cut the lead to 7-3 in the 11th minute with a penalty from close range after Tonga was called offside as the Canadians drove at the goal line.
Tonga added to the lead in the 19th minute after a line break by wing Fine Inisi, who sliced through the Canadian defence before taking a tackle and passing to an open Takulua for a 14-3 lead with the conversion.
Canada seemed headed for a try in the 25th minute after a fine run by wing Kainoa Lloyd but scrum half Ross Braude, with the goal line undefended in front of him, dropped his pass.
The Canadians kept coming, winning a series of penalties in front of the Tonga goalposts. Canada opted for scrums each time, looking to set a platform for a try but could not breach the Tongan defence.
After a penalty against Canada, Tonga kicked for distance and Vailanu, a beefy 280-pound backrower, bulled his way over from the ensuing lineout, dragging defenders with him just before the first half ended.
Vailanu’s power at close range produced another a Tongan try in the 52nd minute, upping the lead to 28-3 with the conversion.
Rumball snuffed out another Tongan goal line threat with a trademark steal at the breakdown in the 65th minute.
A rampaging solo run by Lloyd deep into Tonga territory in the 71st minute ended in nothing when Braude knocked the ball on from the ensuing ruck.
Tonga became the 19th team to qualify for the 20-team World Cup in July 2022 when it defeated No. 24 Hong Kong in the Asia/Pacific 1 playoff. Tonga is in a tough Group B, alongside No. 1 Ireland, No. 4 South Africa, No. 5 Scotland and No. 19 Romania.
Tonga has benefited from a recent World Rugby rule change allowing players who have not represented their country in three years to switch to the country of their birth, or of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth.
Former All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa and Moala started at centre with Vaea Fifita, another New Zealand veteran on the Tongan bench.
Tonga, known as the Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles), was coming off a last-place performance at the four-team Pacific Nations Cup, which ran July 22 through Saturday, losing 36-20 to No. 10 Fiji, 21-16 to No. 14 Japan and 34-9 to No. 12 Samoa.
Before that, the Tongans defeated Australia ‘A’ 27-21 in Nuku’alofa in their first match on home soil since 2017.
Before travelling to Tonga, Canada held a 12-day training camp in Nadi, Fiji, which included a closed training scrimmage with the Fijian Drua academy.
The August internationals have special meaning for Canada coach Kingsley Jones, whose late father Phil Kingsley Jones once coached Tonga.
Jones’ matchday 23 included eight members of the New England Free Jacks, who won 12 straight en route to the Major League Rugby title on July 8. The roster also included six Toronto Arrows, with four starters including Rumball and two more on the bench.
Izzak Kelly, Sion Parry, Travis Larsen and Mitch Richardson all won their first caps for Canada. Conor Young and Mason Flesch made their first starts.
Canada’s record against Tonga now stands at 5-5-0 with the Pacific Islanders winning the last three meetings. Canada has not won since a chippy 36-27 decision in Kingston, Ontario in June 2013.
SOURCE: CANADA PRESS/PACNEWS