WHANGAREI, New Zealand - Tonga kept alive its chances of reaching the Rugby World Cup quarterfinals by inflicting Japan's 17th straight winless match at the tournament with a 31-18 victory on Wednesday.
The Tongans scored tries through Viliami Ma'afu, Tukulua Lokotui and Fetu'u Vainikolo at Northlands Events Centre to improve to five points in Pool A, five behind leaders New Zealand and France but with a match against the French on Oct. 1.
"We've got one more game left and we've got nothing to lose," Tonga coach Isitolo Maka said. "Especially playing against a team like France, which is No. 4 in the world. I'm sure that win tonight will give us a big chance to take them on next week."
The win was Tonga's first in six matches against Japan, which still hasn't added to its sole World Cup victory against Zimbabwe in 1991. The team's one victory in 23 matches and 17-match winless streak are both tournament records.
Kensuke Hatakeyama, Michael Leitch and Alisi Tupuailai scored tries for Japan, which was let down by James Arlidge's failure to land one conversion after having entered the match as the tournament's sixth leading scorer with 21 points despite only having played once.
By comparison, Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath landed six from seven attempts and steered his team around the park well.
The match always promised to be an examination of contrasting styles — Tonga's physicality and confrontational approach up against the crisp, linking interplay between Japan's forwards and backs — and power ultimately pummeled pace.
Tonga's scrum was clearly on top and although its forwards won the battle at the breakdown, the team was still forced to make 50 more tackles. The Japanese backs, however, struggled to hold on to the ball in the face on some flying crash tackles from an on-rushing defence.
Japan's inability to build pressure failed to thoroughly test an occasionally porous Tongan backline that slipped off several first-up tackles.
"We got dominated early and it cost us dearly," said Japan coach John Kirwan. "I think when we are hanging on to the ball, we can put teams under pressure."
Having lost 41-10 to the All Blacks in the tournament opener and then 25-20 to Canada, Tonga attacked from from the outset.
Taniela Moa was dragged down just short of the line after taking a quick tap. From the ensuing scrum, the scrumhalf was again felled just short and, following yet another setpiece, Ma'afu was held up over the line in a brilliant tackle by winger Hirotoki Onozawa.
The pressure finally told from the next scrum, Ma'afu picking the ball up from its base to crash over the line in the seventh minute.
Seven minutes later, Japan hit back through Hatakeyama to make it 5-5. The Japanese forwards laying siege to the try line for several phases before the video referee ruled one surge from the pack had been successful with the tighthead prop clutching the ball.
Immediately from the restart, however, the ball squirted free from a ruck and a three-on-one overlap allowed Lokotui to cross out wide for a try converted by Morath to push Tonga out to a 12-5 lead.
Back came Japan. Leitch, named man of the match, was the recipient of quick ruck ball following centre Ryan Nicholas' midfield break for the openside flanker to reach out and touch down out wide for an unconverted try in the 26th.
Two penalties to Morath, offset by one to fullback Shaun Webb, and the sin-binning of Arlidge for offside helped give Tonga an 18-13 lead at halftime.
The up-tempo pace was maintained after the interval, with Tonga dominating territory and possession but with only a penalty from Morath for a 21-13 lead to initially show for its increasing superiority.
That changed when Vainikolo brushed through some ineffectual tackles to score a converted try out wide in the 55th for a 15-point lead.
Tupuailai's barging run from an inside ball by Arlidge cut the gap to 28-18 in the 63rd, but Arlidge inexplicably missed the conversion and Morath soon added another penalty.
"We realized from our previous game that the last 10 minutes we did not do well," Lutui said. "Tonight we got it right, and that's why we got a result."
Leitch was hopeful that Japan might break its losing record when it plays Canada in its final match on Sept. 27.
"We never give up, we have the fighting spirit," Leitch said. "The tournament's not over yet."
A fire started outside the ground in the 70th minute, the leaping flames clearly visible over one side of the stadium's perimeter before the fire service were called to extinguish them.
Tournament organizers said at no time was the safety of spectators in jeapordy.
Tonga 31 (Viliami Ma'afu, Tukulua Lokotui, Fetu'u Vainikolo tries; Kurt Morath 4 penalties, 2 conversions), Japan 18 (Kensuke Hatakeyama, Michael Leitch, Alisi Tupuailai tries; Shaun Webb penalty). HT: 18-13.