Tonga outlast Japan
OUTSIDE the gates of Northland Events Centre, hours before kickoff, Tongan fans lined the roadside with handmade signs pleading for "Extra tickets, please" for the Rugby World Cup.
You only hoped they got them after Tonga's campaign finally spluttered to life against a disappointing Japan.
TONGA 31 (Viliame Ma'afu, Tukulua Lokotui, Fetu'u Vainikolo tries; Kurt Morath 2 cons, 4 pens)
JAPAN 18 (Kensuke Hatakeyama, Michael Leitch, Alisi Tupualilai tries; Shaun Webb pen)
From the fervour of Tonga's spectacular, traffic-stopping arrival in New Zealand to kickoff against Japan, a World Cup that could have showcased the best of Pasifika rugby instead became a slow-moving nightmare.
Tonga's fall from darlings of the 2007 World Cup to the rabble that lost to Canada on this ground a week ago had been swift. The rumblings of discontent around squad selection for the tournament looked like they carried a hangover. Off-field turmoil can galvanise a squad, but coach Isitolo Maka was asked only to be a strategist, not a facilitator.
Japan, by contrast, have looked well organised, though over-matched, in their two performances coming into this game. The thing about sport, however, is that 0-2 means the same as 0-2, no matter how you get there.
The stakes were high, with Japan's loss all but ruling out a chance of claiming the all-important third place and automatic qualification for 2015.
As early as the first few minutes coach John Kirwan must have been shifting uneasily in his seat - penalties were conceded, the scrum was going backwards and Viliami Ma'afu crashed through the defence to score.
Tonga established physical dominance early, knowing that it would sap the energy and, eventually, the pace from Japan's high-speed game.
A he-scored, we-scored first half pointed to a close finish, but a canny pre-match move by Maka saw Tonga stretch clear in the second despite twice being reduced to 14 men.
Turning five points up due to the accuracy of Kurt Morath's boot, Tonga showed why Maka had opted for a 5-2 split on the bench. He replaced his two props at the break, less than 10 minutes later Aloisio Ma'asi replaced captain Aleki Lutui at hooker.
Like an injection of carbohydrates, they added instant energy to the islanders' efforts. Tonga might have been fortunate to be awarded Fetu'u Vainikolo's try after an obvious shepherd by Ma'afu went unpunished, but they were well worth the 28-13 lead they found themselves protecting.
When Samoan-born Alisi Tupuailai scored on the cutback to reduce the lead by five - James Arlidge missed the simple conversion that capped off a miserable, yellow-card tinged night - Maka was staring at the longest 15 minutes of his coaching career.
Another Morath penalty eased the nerves before, bizarrely, a fire broke out behind the embankment. It briefly burned brightly before flickering out, much like Japan's cup campaign.
Tonga, however, will harbour hopes of a giant-killing finale against France. If nothing else, their loyal fans deserve an effort more like this one, less like the previous week's.