Tonga overcame heavy resistance from Wales to win 32-6 at St Helens and stay on course for a potential World Cup quarter-final showdown with Samoa.
Winger Daniel Tupou scored a hat-trick of tries on a satisfying night for Tonga’s former St Helens coach Kristian Woolf during his farewell appearance at Totally Wicked Stadium, where history was made when Kasey Badger became the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match .
John Kear’s part-timers performed bravely and took the lead with Kyle Evans’ attempt in the 18th minute to the delight of the 7,752 crowd, but the pace, strength and class of the world’s number two eventually took their toll.
Equally stoic in their 18-12 defeat to the Cook Islands, Wales must now beat Papua New Guinea in their final Group D game to avoid going through a second consecutive World Cup without a win.
The early signs were ominous as Wales lost possession on the first play-the-ball of the match and were twice forced to fall from their own posts as Tonga got off to a flying start.
But the Welsh held on and after center Dalton Grant was held over the line after ignoring his unmarked winger, they took a shocking lead via Evans, one of four changes to the side that lost their opening game.
It came from a Tongan handling error halfway through when the quick thinking of Gavin Bennion and Josh led Ralph Evans to sprint away for the first try of the game.
It was an excellent finish from the 32-year-old Wakefield man, who was only playing his fifth senior rugby game after a late code change, and he also impressed with some creaky defense and his ability under the high ball.
Matty Fozard’s conversion put Kear’s men ahead 6-0 and although Tonga struck back almost immediately with a try from a scrum from Tupou, they were still up front in the closing three minutes of the first half.
The game was turned around when star second rower David Fifita came into play from the bench and his close-range try in 37 minutes put the Pacific Islanders ahead for the first time.
The Wales defense cracked again two minutes later when second rower Keaon Koloamatangi, who scored Tonga’s late match winner against PNG, went through a gap on their third try and Tui Lolohea’s second conversion made it 16-6.
That quickly turned 22-6 as fullback Tesi Niu broke away from Wales’ futile attempts to wrestle him to the ground to score his side’s fourth try.
Wales managed to prevent Lolohea from keeping the ball on the ground as he forced his way to the line, but things started to unravel for them when center Siosifa overtook Talakai Tupou for his second try on the hour.
The pair made a writing move to allow Tupou to complete his hat-trick – and take the man-of-the-match award – and the Sydney Rooster also got a fourth attempt which was rejected for obstruction.
Lolohea thought he might have scored the tournament try 15 minutes before the end after right winger Sione Katoa made an acrobatic dive to keep the ball seemingly only in play for slow-motion replays to reveal he had caught the whitewash.
Tonga, who was the semi-finalist in 2017, will welcome Jason Taumalolo back for their final group match against the Cook Islands, with hooker Siliva Havili also joining their sizable ranks.