Tonga overcame stern resistance from Wales to win 32-6 in St Helens and remain on course for a potential World Cup quarter-final showdown with Samoa.
Winger Daniel Tupou scored a hat-trick of tries on a satisfying night for Tonga’s former St Helens coach Kristian Woolf on his farewell appearance at the Totally Wicked Stadium, where history was made with Kasey Badger becoming the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match.
John Kear’s part-timers performed valiantly, taking the lead with Kyle Evans’ 18th-minute try to the delight of the 7,752 crowd, but the pace, power and class of the world number two-ranked nation eventually took its toll.
Similarly stoic in their 18-12 defeat by Cook Islands, Wales must now beat Papua New Guinea in their final Group D fixture to avoid going through a fourth successive World Cup without a win.
The early signs were ominous as Wales lost possession at the first play-the-ball of the match and were twice forced to drop out from their own posts as Tonga made a flying start.
But the Welsh hung on and, after centre Dalton Grant was held up over the line after ignoring his unmarked winger, they took a shock lead through Evans, one of four changes to the side that lost their opening game.
It came from a Tongan handling error on half-way when quick thinking by Gavin Bennion and Josh Ralph got Evans sprinting away for the game’s first try.
It was a superb finish by the 32-year-old Wakefield man, who was playing only his fifth senior game of rugby league after making a late switch of codes, and he also impressed with some crunching defence and his ability under the high ball.
Matty Fozard’s conversion put Kear’s men into a 6-0 lead and, although Tonga struck back almost immediately with a try from a scrum by Tupou, they were still in front going into the last three minutes of the first half.
The game took a momentum shift when star second rower David Fifita entered the action from the bench and his close-range try on 37 minutes put the Pacific Islanders in front for the first time.
Wales’ defence cracked again two minutes later when second rower Keaon Koloamatangi, who scored Tonga’s late match-winner against PNG, went through a gap for their third try and Tui Lolohea’s second conversion made it 16-6.
That quickly became 22-6 when full-back Tesi Niu wriggled free from Wales’ futile attempts to wrestle him to the ground to score his side’s fourth try.
Wales managed to prevent Lolohea grounding the ball when he forced his way to the line but it began to unravel for them when centre Siosifa Talakai got Tupou over for his second try on the hour.
The pair produced a copybook move to enable Tupou to complete his hat-trick – and clinch the man-of-the-match award – and the Sydney Rooster also had a fourth try disallowed for obstruction.
Lolohea thought he had scored possibly the try of the tournament 15 minutes from the end after right winger Sione Katoa produced an acrobatic dive to seemingly keep the ball in play only for slow-motion replays to reveal it had caught the whitewash.
Tonga, who were semi-finalists in 2017, will welcome back loose forward Jason Taumalolo for their final group game against Cook Islands, with hooker Siliva Havili also due to bolster their considerable ranks.