Tonga is a step closer to the Women's Rugby World Cup after overcoming travel delays and ill-discipline to defeat Papua New Guinea 36-24 in Port Moresby yesterday.
The first ever women's rugby international to be played in PNG was postponed 24 hours after visa entry complications because of the coronavirus twice prevented the Tongan team's departure from Auckland last week.
The kingdom conceded the opening try in only the second minute but scored four first-half tries to lead the Cassowaries 22-12 at the interval, despite prop Atamaama Tuutafaiva being sent off in the 37th minute.
The home side scored 40 seconds into the second spell to cut the deficit to five points, while Tonga were reduced to 13 players in the same phase after left winger Siutiti Maake was yellow carded.
Substitute front rower Mele Akuila was also sent to the sin bin with 11 minutes to play, reducing the visitors to 13 players for the remainder of the match, but replacement loose forward Ruby Tangulu still managed to find the tryline to extend their lead to 29-17 with eight minutes remaining.
PNG Sevens star Joanna Lagona responded for the Cassowaries two minutes later to cut the deficit to five points and set up a grandstand finish, before midfielder Pesalini Heehau scored for Tonga on full-time to clinch a historic victory.
Tonga captain Vaaiga Moimoi said it was a huge result for the team and women's rugby.
"This one is very big for us - especially for Tongan women," she said.
"Not only for Tonga but us Pacific women, it's a privilege to play here, especially in PNG, and can't wait for the future."
"It was a very physical game today but by the look of the crowd everyone enjoyed it. It's just growing for us women and I encourage everyone to keep supporting us women...it's very exciting for the future of women's rugby," Moimoi said.
Despite coming up short on home soil, Cassowaries coach John Pangkatana believed women's rugby in PNG was moving in the right direction.
"It's a progressive thing for us," he said.
"We're working our systems and you can see after today we went to the second phase [in qualifying] for the first time in three years and not only that, we went beyond that so a lot of good things have been happening.
"We learned a lot in Fiji in November and we're picking up. It was a pity we had to start early this year but as we go along it's progressing, we will probably show a little bit more in the few months to come."
Tonga will now face Samoa on 18 April for a berth in the final Rugby World Cup Repechage tournament.
"We know Samoa will be very physical as well but our goal was to win this game and going forward we will just keep doing our best," Moimoi said.