They were indebted to an inexplicable error by Cook Islands winger Jordan Rapana who, 11 minutes from time, somehow failed to score a try, throwing the ball in the air when he was just inches from grounding it.
That was cruel on the Cook Islands, who played their part in a gripping contest in front of a stadium record crowd of 10,544 at Leigh Sports Village.
They fell short however, with Jorge Taufau’s dubious score just after the hour mark proving decisive for Tonga.
The Cook Islands hit back five minutes later. With the Tonga defence deep, Isaac John‘s pinpoint kick was collected by an onrushing Taripo, whose weaving run and momentum took him past the full back and over the line.
Taripo and Keith Lulia were causing problems on the left hand side, and Taripo went over for his second try just before the 20 minute mark. A grubber kick by Drury Low sat up nicely in goal, and Taripo did well to reach it and touch down.
A bizarre incident on the half hour set up the field position for Tonga‘s equalising score. Sam Mataora, apparently dazed from a tackle after driving it up, played the ball the wrong way, and conceded a penalty, 40 metres out.
From there, Jason Taumololo took advantage, getting in a gap vacated by Lulia shooting out of the defensive line.
Samsoni Langi nudged over a penalty, to go with his two successful conversions, for 14-10.
That lead was increased on the stroke of half time when centre Konrad Hurrell powered through three tackles, leaving several others in his wake and carrying a couple over the line for a fine solo score.
With both teams needing a win to ensure their quarter-final hopes remained intact, the Cooks came out firing at the start of the second half.
Taripo finished a sweeping move in the left corner, and then dusted himself off to land a touchline conversion and reduce the deficit to just two.
It stayed at 18-16 for almost 20 minutes as both sides through down the gauntlet. The Cooks travelled the full length of the field off one set, and a terrific defensive effort restricted Tonga to inside their own 20 metres.
After Tonga had saw off that pressure, they then imposed some of their own.
And eventually, just after the hour, it told. Winger Taufua took on Fisi’iahi’s long pass, and went down in the corner. The score was referred to the video referee, and despite replays seeming inconclusive, the try was awarded.
Then sensationally, after Zeb Taia had kept the ball alive on the last, Rapana looked to have slid over with ball in hand, but just inches from the ground, he coughed up possession and the chance had gone.
That proved to be a killer blow for the Cooks, and they just couldn’t muster up another scoring opportunity, and they bowed out of the tournament.
Tonga: Fisi’iahi, Tupou, Hurrell, Fonua, Taufua, Langi, Foster, Kite, Politini, Moimoi, Taumololo, S Manu, Paea. Interchanges: Seluini, Vave, W Manu, Ta’ai.
Scorers: Tries – Fisi’iahi (7), Taumololo (31), Hurrell (39), Taufua (62) Goals – Langi 3/5
Cook Islands: Low, Taripo, K Lulia, Takairangi, Rapana, Ford, John, Napa, Fepuleai, Tetavano, Peyroux, Taia, Arona. Interchanges: Malu, Tangata, Matapuku, Mataora.
Scorers: Tries – Taripo (12, 19, 44) Goals – Taripo 2/2, Rapana 0/1
Venue: Leigh Sports Village