Samoa and Tonga promised fireworks before their Rugby League World Cup showdown and the quarter-final clash between the Pacific Island rivals certainly lived up to it.
The Samoans shook off the disappointment of their first-up flogging against England to down the Tongans 20-18 in what was arguably the best game at the World Cup so far.
The thrilling two-point triumph earned the Samoans a semi-final date against England and an opportunity to atone for their 60-6 mauling against the tournament hosts in their opening game.
Even before kick-off, the match had a special feel to it as players from both sides squared up to each other to perform their countries' respective war dances.
In scenes described as "spine-tingling" by viewers, the Samoan and Tongan players performed the pre-game routines at the same time.
Samoa captain captain Junior Paulo led his side's Siva Tau, with rival skipper Siliva Havili in charge of Tonga's Sipi Tau.
Paulo said rather than argue about which side would perform their war dance first, the rival skippers agreed to do them at the same time as a sign of unity and respect for one another.
“When we headed out to the coin toss there was talks about who was going to go first,” Paulo said.
“I just spoke to Jase (Taumalolo) and threw the question out there if we wanted to do it together thinking it’s a good sign of unity between the two nations and the support over rugby league in general.
“It’s a really proud moment, for myself too, my partner’s Tongan and my kids are half and half so it’s always going to be a tough conversation about who to support. But I think that’s the best thing about celebrating both cultures.”
The incredible pre-game moment left rugby league fans gushing with admiration on social media.
— Rugby League World Cup 2021 (@RLWC2021) November 6, 2022
It’s over to Warrington today for the last #RLWC2021 Quarter Final of the weekend. #Samoa vs #Tonga! I can’t wait for it. Both sides doing their War Dance before KO.. spine tingling!
Can’t wait for it! 🏉 @RLWC2021
— Anthony Harris (@Antzharris10) November 6, 2022
Samoa v Tonga Dance off at the Rugby League😳 pic.twitter.com/OHfUwOWb9Y
— Fatbaldbloke (@Fatbaldbloke1) November 6, 2022
— DennyTee (@CartzeL_TTV) November 6, 2022
I hope the Tonga v Samoa game is as good as their war dance / stand off pre kick off. #RLWC21
— Louisa King (@MadeinKendal) November 6, 2022
How good are the Tonga and Samoa cultural dances at the same time? #RLWC2021
— Mark H (@neonbubble) November 6, 2022
Fantastic encounter there between the two Teams. War dances and then all shaking hands! Love it.@RLWC2021
Samoa V Tonga
— The Saint (@Knowsleyrude) November 6, 2022
Samoa v Tonga was magnificent from the ritual haka type dances to the players and supporters of both sides saluting each other after a tight and brutal match. Wonderful sport.
— Sam Sercombe (@buteosam) November 6, 2022
— Mark Brierley 💙🇺🇦 (@MarkBrierley1) November 6, 2022
Samoa had to work hard for their victory after the enthralling pre-game exchange of cultural performances that whipped the 12,674 fans at the Halliwell Jones Stadium into a frenzy.
Samoa's win must have eased some of the doubts for Matt Parish's side after that 54-point humbling in the tournament's opening game, with subsequent wins over Greece and France par for the course for the Samoans.
Samoa into their first ever World Cup semi-final
However, they stood tall in the victory over a Tonga side ranked No.2 in the world, reaching a first-ever World Cup semi-final in proof that this star-studded side could finally fulfil its immense potential.
"The tournament was never about the first game, it was about the last game," Parish said after the win on Monday (AEDT).
"You guys (journalists) made it about the first game. We were never going to be at our best, it was always about building through the tournament. I've been through it numerous times.
"England were unreal and we were pretty ordinary, what more can we say about it? We've moved on."
Jaydn Su'A and Jarome Luai crossed for Samoa in the early stages with tries from Daniel Tupou and Siosiua Taukeiaho keeping Tonga in the game to trail 12-10 at halftime.
Tonga never looked convincing, however, and they will be left to rue a missed opportunity to pass through to the semi-finals for a second-straight tournament.
"I don't know whether the occasion got to us as the start. Samoa beat us to the punch a little bit," Tonga coach Kristian Woolf admitted after the game.
"We were on the back foot for a fair bit of the game but to win that game we needed to be better than what we were."
Isaiya Katoa levelled the scores with a penalty in the 50th minute, Stephen Crichton responding shortly after for Samoa to reestablish a lead.
But Samoa soon pulled away, thanks in part to a brilliant break by fullback Joseph Suaalii.
Winger Brian To'o touched down on the hour mark to open up an eight-point gap.
Sione Katoa cut the deficit for Tonga to set up a grandstand finish and make it 20-18.
Camped on Samoa's line and in search of a late winner, Tonga five-eighth Tui Lolohea attempted a grubberkick on the fourth tackle with 40 seconds remaining which was gleefully scooped up by Junior Paulo to secure victory.
Samoa, however, will be hoping Paulo isn't sanctioned for leading with the elbow in a collision with David Fifita late in the game and that Marty Taupau, who limped off in the second half, will be fit to face England.
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