Will Hopoate declares pride, passion have driven Tonga to brink of World Cup final

Will Hopoate has hailed the decision of stars such as Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to play for Tonga - and "pride and passion" - for helping drive the Mate Ma'a to their first Rugby League World Cup semifinal.

Hopoate, who scored a try and made a line break, was one of Tonga's best in a scratchy 24-22 quarterfinal win in Christchurch on Saturday against a brave Lebanon team led by his NRL rivals Robbie Farah and Mitchell Moses.

The Tongans - who had newly-re-elected Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva travel to the game on their team bus - were mobbed by their fans, who dominated the 8309-strong crowd, after the final whistle with colourful leis draped around players' necks.

David Fusitu'a (117m), Hopoate (170m) and centre Konrad Hurrell (184m) were all prominent with the ball in hand for Tonga, but Hopoate said the "forwards laid the platform for us backs to move around like that".

​"When he you see some of the carries that Jase and Andrew had, it really lifts the team." 

Taumalolo reeled off a game-high 214m from 17 carries while Fifita made 18 runs for 198m and also pulled off 26 tackles in his 57 minutes.

Asked to explain why everything was turning up trumps for Tonga this year, Hopoate said: "The pride and the passion".

"It's been well documented all the boys leaving the tier one nations to come and play for us."

Taumalolo (New Zealand) and Fifita (Australia) switched their allegiance to Tonga just before the start of the World Cup and others - including ex-Kiwis Fusitu'a and Manu Ma'u followed.

Ma'u was another big contributor to Tonga's win over Lebanon, playing the full 80 minutes in the second row and making an equal team-high 35 tackles with skipper Sika Manu. 

Manu said this was the "furthest any Tongan sporting team has ever gone" in a global competition and he thought the support for the team would "get bigger and bigger".

Now playing in England for Hull FC, Manu said he hoped more Pacific players would follow Taumalolo and Fifita's example and declare for their countries of heritage.

"If players like Jason and Andrew come back [for Tonga] and Samoa do the same, and Fiji do the same, then  the Pacific teams will be really strong and rugby league will be strong in general, especially the international game."

Hopoate - who is at his first World Cup - said the Tongan groundswell began before the tournament.

"I think our camp in Tonga to start with really bonded us together and helped us to see the people we were playing for and representing.

"We don't have a lot and we don't have all the accolades that the bigger countries do, but we do have heart and we are trying to show that."

Hopoate felt Tonga's win over Lebanon "speaks volumes for the character we have as a team - not playing our best but still finding a way to win".

"I think it was more of a mentality thing, we thought we could have played better, but again, the Lebanese have played really good, and take nothing away from them. They're fit and they have energy, we're just really grateful we could come away with the win.

"The positive thing for us is there's more room for improvement."

​Hopoate was called on to make a goal-line tackle as young Lebanon centre Adam Doueihi stretched for the line early in the second spell.

The incident was referred to the video replay officials, who ruled no-try for an obstruction on Tonga's Ukuma Tai'ai.

But Hopoate felt "that was a 50-50" call. "It really thought it could have gone either way. I think we got the rub of the green there. But that's footy - you create your own luck."