Tonga bowed out of the Rugby League World Cup in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday but its legacy from the 2017 tournament will remain alive.
The Pacific Island nation won the hearts of rugby league fans across the world by continually exceeding expectations on the biggest stage of all. The players' passion — as much as their skill — ensured they left the World Cup with more fans than they could possibly have imagined.
A historic 28-22 upset over New Zealand in the group stage — the first time a tier two nation has defeated a tier one side — preceded a dramatic 24-22 win over Lebanon in the quarter-finals.
Tonga's dream run ended when a late comeback fell agonisingly short in a two-point defeat to England in the semis. The Kristian Woolf-coached team was led by powerhouse forwards Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, who made headlines by turning their backs on their respective countries and pledging their allegiance to Tonga.
Taumalolo snubbed New Zealand — who he has played 10 Tests for — and Fifita pulled out of the Australian squad to follow his heart. Former NSW and Australian representative Mark Geyer said Taumalolo — who was the first player to go public with his backflip — has changed international rugby league forever.
"The minute Jason Taumalolo pledged his allegiance to Tonga, this whole competition changed forever," Geyer told the Triple M Grill Team on Monday.
"If he stays with Tonga for the amount of years he's with the Cowboys — which is another nine years — he could turn this Tongan team into a real world force.
"It's been 25 years since that stadium (Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland) was sold out and to see 30,000 red jerseys in the stadium was so spiritual."
NRL great Matthew Johns said Tonga — with the help of Taumalolo and Fifita — has breathed life back into the international competition. He watched Saturday's semi-final at a pub in the AFL heartland of Melbourne and said everyone was engrossed by what the men in red were doing.
"He (Taumalolo) could turn them into the world champions," Johns said on the Grill Team.
"On the weekend they're some of the greatest scenes I've ever seen in rugby league.
"In one corner (of the pub) you've got the cricket on and in the other you've got the rugby league on the big screen.
"There were two blokes sitting and watching the cricket and it was packed sitting in front watching England vs Tonga in the rugby league."
In a sport dominated by Australia, New Zealand and at time England, the Tongan resurgence could inspire future generations to follow Taumalolo and Fifita's lead to play for the much smaller nation if given a chance to choose.
Tonga was denied a fairytale finish against England when Fifita was ruled to have lost the ball on the final play of the game despite appeals the ball was stripped.
But Tonga's reaction to the heartbreak was all class. The crowd of 30,003 at Mt Smart Stadium — made up heavily of Tongan supporters — continued to create a buzzing atmosphere after the game by singing hymns that echoed around the Auckland venue well after the final siren.
They could have been forgiven for rioting after Fifita's knock-on, but they took the high road after full-time.
The devastated players finished the tournament with a farewell Sipi Tau war dance in front of the wild crowd.