NEWS
10/01/2011 06:41 EDT | Updated 12/01/2011 05:12 EST

Tiny Tonga beats France at Rugby World Cup to reward event's most fervent fans

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - As Tonga's defeat of France at the Rugby World Cup reverberated around the world, coach Isitolo Maka expected the team's greatest victory to send the Pacific isles into delirious celebrations on Saturday.

Tonga dominated to win 19-14 but missed out on making the quarterfinals for failing to score the four tries required to get a bonus point. As consolation, it's sure to gain an automatic berth in the 2015 World Cup unless Canada produces an even bigger surprise by beating New Zealand on Sunday.

But beside the amazing result, the team's incredible spirit and attitude, its fervent support and no-holds-barred rugby style won fans over at the World Cup.

Asked if he was dancing inside with joy, the stoic Maka cracked a warm smile at the post-match conference.

"Big time. The win tonight, you probably don't know what it means to me and the people back in Tonga," he said. "I think in Tonga right now they are going crazy, and we are going to get a lot of support when we go to Auckland tomorrow."

A crowd of more than 30,000 at Wellington's Regional Stadium was for the most part decked out in Tonga red and white, waving flags and chanting for Tonga over and over again as an improbable qualification at one stage looked possible.

"I think this World Cup has really come alive, especially from all our fans, who are supporting us all the way and have been everywhere," Maka said. "Auckland, up to Whangarei and now Wellington. I just want to take my hat off to all the fans."

Tonga previously beat France in 1999 in Nuku'alofa, and downed Australia in 1973 in Brisbane. This was only its sixth win in World Cup history.

Tonga earned lots of plaudits on the event's opening night when a stout second-half performance limited New Zealand to just a 41-10 win.

The Tongans then had to play Canada five days later and lost 25-20 in Whangarei. But it rebounded with a 31-18 win against Japan to earn an outside chance of reaching the last eight.

Maka was surprisingly philosophical about missing out on second place in Pool A, and managed to step back from the emotion of getting so close. He felt the team managed to surpass itself against France precisely because it had started slowly.

"It's probably meant to be like this, because if we won against Canada, maybe we would probably take it easy, the result might be different tonight," he said. "It really helped us to lose against Canada. We performed well against Japan and I thought we did really well tonight. We can't complain now, it's all done and dusted and we look forward."

Looking forward means praying for more matches against top test sides.

"I'm hoping," Maka said. "Hopefully the IRB will give us a test match next year against a Tier One country."

Hooker Aleki Lutui praised the team's unbreakable bond.

"The main thing was the confidence we have in each other, we trust each other and then go forward," he said, adding that he sensed France was weak and seeking to avoid a physical showdown on the field.

"They didn't turn up, the attitude they had wasn't up to their standard. We took advantage of that and that's why we got the result," Lutui said. "We gave this win to our friends and family. I'm sure they're all proud of what we achieved. This is a big, big thing for the history of Tonga rugby to beat a tier one team."