First, it was Tonga upsetting Australia to win a landmark head-to-head battle despite the country’s relatively short rugby league existence.
Now, also in another historic first, the Tongans have displaced the great power of the sport, three years on, following the latest world rankings from the International Rugby League governing body.
Tonga has moved up one spot to be the No.3 nation just behind New Zealand and England.
Australia has slipped to No.4 on the back of that shock 16-12 defeat in 2019 that heavily influenced the release of the rankings.
But Tonga’s rise among the world’s traditional elite has been remarkable as the nation was ranked 24th at the start of the previous decade.
The highest world standing in Tonga’s rugby league history came on the back of a huge 2017 World Cup performance when the kingdom fought back from a 16-2 deficit to win 28-22 over New Zealand.
Tonga has since recorded a 14-6 win over the English to solidify a golden two-year period prior to a halt in proceedings to the international game.
But according to Tonga coach Kristian Woolf, the Australian victory, in one of the few Tests since the outbreak of Covid-19 put the 2021 World Cup on hold, has defined the credibility of the team’s new standing.
“It was a really big moment for our group of players, and it was a really big moment for the country as a whole,” he told nrl.com.
“There was a whole lot of things that made that special.
“There was a whole lot of things that went up in the build up that made life a bit difficult for us in terms of our preparation and being able to come together as a team.
“Our players if you look through the course of the last eight or nine years of Tongan rugby league, we’ve transitioned through a period of where we were No.14 in the world.
“We didn’t have a set schedule and to commit to Tonga you didn’t really know what you were committing to what games or when you might play and when you might get together as a group
“But that’s now really changed. We’re now right up against the top nations in the world.”
IRL chairman Troy Grant has admitted that the rankings were “skewed” after some nations have not played Tests since the beginning of the pandemic.
Greater weighting has been given to more recent results after wins in the past two years, worth more than double from a Test three years ago and valued four times more than from four years ago.
Under the new rankings, Papua New Guinea is No.5, followed by Fiji, France and Samoa at No.8.
The nation of little more than 100,000 – and hundreds of thousand expatriates – is living the dream of building towards not only a No.1 ranking but a real possibility of winning next year’s World Cup.
“We can achieve more than we did in the 2017 World Cup, which means I have got just no doubts whatsoever that we have the ability of playing in (the) final and got the ability to give ourselves a good opportunity to win it,” Woolf said.
Tonga’s roots in the game date back to foundation of its own administration in 1949, but the country did not play its first international until 1986 in a 34-16 win over Western Samoa in the South Pacific Cup.
That has impressed many on Twitter.
“An amazing feat for a tiny island nation,” the Coconet, the virtual village of Moana storytelling, tweeted on Monday.
“The MMT (Mate Ma’a Tonga) boys share what it means for them to play for Tonga.”
The latest milestone has come through adversity off the field after the administrators of the game were removed.
Former Tongan prime minister Semisi Sika wrote to the International Rugby League in 2019 to advise that Tongan National Rugby League had lost the confidence of the government, Tongan rugby league clubs and the country’s players.
The International Rugby League had expelled the membership of the Tongan National Rugby League “based upon several factors which were having a negative impact on rugby league in Tonga and on the wider international game”.
An appeal to the court of arbitration in April this year to be reinstated of the game was dismissed.
The Pacific Advocate contacted the Tongan government for comment.