Rugby League World Cup 2017: Will rugby league ever be the same again after Tonga's seismic upset?

Shocking the world: Tongan fans celebrate in Hamilton. Photo: AAP
Shocking the world: Tongan fans celebrate in Hamilton. Photo: AAP

Five players who turned their backs on Australia and New Zealand will forever be remembered as heroes, their coach said after the Mate Ma'a smashed through international rugby league's glass ceiling for one of the most important results in the game's 122 year history.

Tonga's 28-22 win in front 24,041 frothing fans at FMG Stadium in Hamilton was the first time, in 37 attempts, a tier two nation has toppled Australia, New Zealand or England in World Cups since 1995, when developing nations were first included.

An afternoon which ended with hymns and cheering that shook the grandstand started when the Kiwis stepped over the line - literally.

Asked why his team had chosen to advance on the haka before kick-off, Tonga captain Sika Manu answered: "When you usually do the haka, you're supposed to stand on your side of the half.

"They crossed the halfway so we retaliated by stepping forward. We were face to face. They crossed the line first and we stepped up to defend our ground."

The players ended up inches from each others faces in a confrontation to rival that between Tonga and Samoa players the previous Saturday. Taumalolo then led the Sipi Tau, something unexpected as he is not captain.

Touching down: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak dives over to score. Photo: AAP

Touching down: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak dives over to score. Photo: AAP

"After everything that happened before the World Cup with him picking Tonga, I guess he just felt it was right to do it," said Manu.

For Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Sio Suia Taukeiaho, Manu Ma'u and three-try David Fusitua, it was the ultimate vindication of their decision to side with Tonga and $30 a day in preference to the big money with Australia and New Zealand.

Asked how the game's history would remember them, coach Kristian Woolf said: "If you ask Tongans, as heroes.

"One of the knocks international rugby league gets is that Australia tend to win most things. What this says is us, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea are not far off the mark. It gives us a genuine international game.

"I'd like to see the day where everything is equal. Then you'll see truly competitive international rugby league.

Being in Hamilton on Saturday must have been what it was like to be at Lang Park on July 8, 1980.

Like the birth of State of Origin, rugby league was countering economic migration and empowering those marginalised by it. In Origin it was the Queensland public, who lost their best players to poker machine-rich Sydney clubs. 

In 2017, it's the descendents of economic migrants from a tiny Pacific nation representing that country - in many cases against the nation of their birth. In both cases, a whole new audience and revenue stream has made itself apparent. In both cases the sport has found a way to champion the underdog.

New Zealand's Simon Mannering applauded the development, saying the Kiwis now had viable opponents on their doorstep and could hold profitable high profile matches against them - something they had not been able to do before.

The Kiwis led 16-2 at halftime and even at the death looked capable of grabbing a late victory. A key moment was Tonga's Tui Lolohea snatching an intercept off Russell Packer in the 63rd minute - the conversion gave Tonga the lead.

"We are in the quarter-finals and we still have a job to do," said coach David Kidwell, who now faces a likely semi-final against Australia.  "Nothing changes in that respect. It's good that these tier two countries are now able to beat the big countries.

"It's just unfortunate it had to be me."

Asked if he believed the Mate Ma'a could win the World Cup, Woolf said: "I'm got going to sit here and say no. We've just beaten a tier one nation.

"Australia's a whole different beast. They've won so many internationals because of the way they play. They just suffocate you. We've got a long, long way before we play them.

"We've achieved something special and there's a lot more we can achieve.

"I don't know how we had a try disallowed just before halftime but if you let those things affect you, it can continue on that downward spiral."

TONGA 28 (David Fusitu'a 3, Tui Lolohea, Will Hopoate tries; Sio Siua Taukeiaho 3 Lolohea goal) defeated NEW ZEALAND 22 (Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rapana, tries; Shaun Johnson goal) at FMG Stadium, Hamilton. Referee: Gerard Sutton (Australia). Crowd: 24,041