The Bravehearts navigated the group stage unbeaten, but needed a favour from the Tongans to ensure their place in the last eight, where they will play world champions New Zealand at Headingley on Friday.
Second half tries from Willie Manu, Daniel Foster and Peni Terepo were enough to defeat the Italians, who will be bitterly disappointed not to progress, having themselves been one of the stories of the World Cup, ever since their shock warm-up win over England.
Carlo Napolitano’s men went close on several occasions, but just couldn’t find a way through a determined Tonga defence. The win means Charlie Tonga‘s men finish second in Group C, behind Scotland and ahead of Italy, with four points.
It took until the very last kick of the first half for any points to be scored, Samsoni Langi kicking a penalty on the hooter just as it looked like we were heading for the first scoreless first half in 22 years of international rugby league.
Italy came closest to a try in the first half when Ryan Ghietti’s kick to the corner caused problems for the Tonga defence. Cameron Ciraldo took on the loose ball and got out a smart offload to Josh Mantellato in the corner, but the Newcastle winger was held up over the line, after it went upstairs to video referee Phil Bentham.
Both sides struggled to complete sets, and an Italian error close to their line set up a bizarre few minutes that summed up the first half.
He was relieved, however, when Tonga managed to overturn the scrum, creating another chance on the Italian line. They tried for four tackles, and earned a penalty to repeat the count, before Jorge Taufua made the same mistake as his centre did just minutes earlier, pushed in to touch close to the line.
Tonga then withstood an onslaught of pressure and countless repeat sets from the Italian, who went close on several occasions, Ryan Tramonte held up just short and chance wasted following Ray Nasso‘s break.
It was impressive Tonga half Daniel Foster that got the gamebreaking score, touching down for 12-0, after young full back Nesiasi Mataitonga had broken the Italians’ momentum. There were questions as to whether Foster had got it down, with an Italian foot doing its best to deny him, but Bentham just about got the right call.
As time pressed on, it was looking more and more desperate for the Italians, and salt was rubbed in to their wounds late on when Peni Terepo grabbed Tonga‘s third try, after the ball had come loose in a tackle and bounced off a team-mate.
Tonga: Mataitonga, Tupou, Hurrell, Fonua, Taufua, Langi, Foster, Kite, Politoni, Moimoi, Ta’ai, Manu, Paea. Interchanges: Seluini, Vave, Terepo, Likiliki.
Scorers: Tries – Manu (46), Foster (64), Terepo (79) Goals: Langi 2/4
Italy: A Minichiello, Mantellato, Tedesco, Guerra, Centrone, Falcone, Ghietti, Laffranchi, Parata, Vaughan, M Minichiello, Ciraldo, Riethmuller. Interchanges: Snowden, Tramonte, Santi, Nasso.
Venue: The Shay Stadium, Halifax