If the hakas were as blood-curdling as everyone anticipated – "My strength is at its peak, make way and move aside," shouted the Samoans; "The sea eagle is starved, let the foreigner and sojourner beware," screamed the Tongans, who also pointed out during their delightful little ditty that they had "shed their human characteristics" and intended to "drink the ocean and consume the fire" – much of the match was strangely muted. The crowd responded more enthusiastically to an insipid old Mary Hopkin song, performed by brass bands at either end of the stadium, than to anything they witnessed on the field. Weird.
But when the temperature rose – and boy, did it rise in the last quarter – the perennial whipping boys of the South Seas were the ones who caught light. 'Otenili Langilangi, more popularly known as Nili Latu, played a captain's knock with ball in hand, while his fellow back-rowers, Hale T-Pole and the ferocious Finau Maka, concentrated on knocking the opposing captain, Semo Sititi, into the middle of next year. T-Pole did not last the game: he was sent off for what appeared to be a stiff-elbow tackle on the Samoan lock Leo Lafaiali'i. You might say that Lafaiali'i was T-Poleaxed. You might also say that while the New Zealand-based flanker was on the field, Tonga won the collision areas that proved crucial to the result.
Samoa tried to play it cool and clever, figuring that by out-thinking their Pacific cousins rather than participating in an all-out smashfest, they would be in a healthier position to throw the kitchen sink at England in Nantes this weekend. But Samoa are not Samoa when they prefer their little grey cells to their big blood-red muscles. There was nothing instinctive about their game yesterday, nothing of the untamed force that has been at the heart of all their great World Cup performances.
Four penalties from Gavin Williams gave them a 12-3 advantage by the half-hour mark, but the notion that Tonga could be kicked to defeat proved badly flawed. As the outsiders, who had not beaten their more celebrated neighbours in seven years, began to control the tackle area, the favourites conceded penalties of their own. Ulia Ulia, a Samoan flanker so good they named him twice, was responsible for starting the flurry in first-half injury time, and Pierre Hola made him pay. Hola then missed from 50 metres, if not by much, before chipping over a straightforward kick to bring his side to within three points.
Then, as the clock ticked past the hour, the Tongans drove a line-out maul and propelled the centre Epi Taione, drummed out of the Sale club for biting a Munsterman in a Heineken Cup tie and now earning a living in Japan, over the line for the game's only try. Hola converted and added a fourth penalty 10 minutes from time. Despite a fifth successful kick from Williams, the Samoans came up short, even after T-Pole's dismissal and the yellow card flourished at the Tonga prop Toma Toke, who had been on the field all of three minutes before tackling Elvis Seveali'i around the windpipe.
"It hurts me to say that they wanted it more, because we pride ourselves on our urgency, our desire, our passion," said Michael Jones, the Samoa coach.
"But that was the best Tongan performance I've ever seen. We've missed an opportunity to hold our own fate in our hands but, like Tonga, we can be a scary team with our backs to the wall." England, be warned.
Samoa: Penalties: Williams 5. Tonga: Try Taione; Conversion Hola; Penalties Hola 4.
Samoa: G Williams; S Tagicakibau, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, A Tuilagi; L Crichton, S So'oialo; K Lealamanua, M Schwalger, C Johnston, J Tekori, K Thompson, D Leo, U Ulia, S Sititi (capt). Replacements: M Salanoa for Johnston, 57; J Polu for So'oialo, 58; D Lemi for Tagicakibau, 58; T Fuga for Schwalger, 61; J Purdie for Ulia, 63; L Lafaiali'i for Tekori, 63; L Lui for Williams, 80; Johnston for Salanoa, 80.
Tonga: V Lilo; T Tu'ifua, S Hufanga, E Taione, J Vaka; P Hola, E Taufa; S Tonga'uiha, E Taukafa, K Pulu, I Afeaki, P Hehea, H T Pole, N Latu, F Maka. Replacements: S Tu'ipulotu for Taufa , 43; A Lutui for Taukafa, 50; V Vaki for Afeaki, 57; I Tupou for Taione, 78; T Toke for Tonga'uiha, 78.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).Reuse content