HAMILTON, New Zealand (AP) — David Fusitu'a scored a second-half hat trick as Tonga produced one of the biggest upsets in Rugby League World Cup history by rallying from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat New Zealand 28-22 on Saturday and secure top spot in Group B.
New Zealand led 16-2 at halftime but the Tongans replied with five tries after the break and then held off a late comeback by the Kiwis.
The result marks the first time a so-called tier-two nation has beaten one of the sport's three top-tier nations. New Zealand won the World Cup in 2008 and has appeared in the final in each of the last three tournaments, while Tonga has reached the quarterfinals at the World Cup for the first time.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf said it wasn't out of the question for his team to reach the Dec. 2 final in Brisbane.
"What I do know is that we've got a group of good blokes here — a lot of people have singled out the guys who have been names in the NRL and we do have a number of those, but there's a lot of guys there really playing to their potential," Woolf said. "That's a sign of a group of men who want to play for each other and together, (and) they're obviously playing for something they really believe in."
Both teams had already qualified for the quarterfinals and were joined on Saturday by Samoa, which drew 14-14 with Scotland in the other Group B game but went through because of a superior points difference.
Samoa will next play defending champion Australia, which eased past Lebanon 34-0 to remain unbeaten in Group A. Utility back Cameron Munster scored a pair of tries for the Kangaroos, but the Australians could have trouble in the frontrow department after props Aaron Woods and David Klemmer were put on report for tackling infringements against Lebanon.
The Tongans didn't have any concerns ahead of the quarterfinals. Fusutu'a crossed three times, including the match winner three minutes from the end.
Tuimoala Lolohea also scored from an intercept while William Hopoate joined the Tongan tryscorers to stun the tournament co-hosts.
"We let ourselves down in the discipline areas, that we're normally really good at, or have been in this tournament," New Zealand captain Adam Blair said. "That forced us into playing some footy and caused a few errors, so you've got to give them credit for the pressure they put on us. If you give them a bit of football, they're a hard team to stop."
The showdown in Hamilton had the makings of a bitter contest after Jason Taumalolo opted out of the Kiwis in favor of playing for the South Pacific island homeland of his family.
Andrew Fifita chose to join Taumalolo instead of playing for Australia, further bolstering the Tongan squad, who easily beat Scotland and Samoa to set up the Group B decider with New Zealand.
The pre-match featured a fearsome exchange of war dances, with players from rival teams coming face-to-face in a bid to intimidate each other.
The Kiwis began strongly with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rapana and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck all scoring first-half tries.
Tonga piled on 22 unanswered points after the interval to lead 24-16 before Tuivasa-Sheck scored his second try of the match, which was converted by Shaun Johnson to cut the margin to two. That left it to Fusitu'a to seal his team's win with his third try.
By finishing top of Group B, Tonga is now likely to avoid having to play tournament favorite Australia, at least until the final, while New Zealand faces the prospect of a much trickier path, starting with a quarterfinal against Fiji and possibly Australia in the semis.
"This is a blessing in disguise for us," New Zealand coach John Kidwell said. "We're still going down to Wellington, we're still in a quarterfinal and we'll prepare well again."