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RUGBY

Never-say-dye Tonga falls to England in World Cup

September 29, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- While you weren't looking, they continued to play the 44-day Rugby World Cup in France, and it yielded one of the best prepared statements in prepared-statement history.

As the field set to whittle itself from 20 nations to eight by next weekend, and as the ousted minnow United States battled Samoa to an admirable 25-21 Samoa victory, defending champion England prepared for a crucial tete-a-tete with wee but ambitious Tonga on Friday night.

For the Tongans, preparation meant going green -- as in green hair.

But first, some background. The Tongans hail from one of the smallest countries to participate in the 2004 Athens Olympics (population: 116,921), but a country noted for having one of the world's highest ratios of obesity.

Still, the Tongans had impressed everyone in France. They had beaten neighbor Samoa in a furious fracas, taken a mere 30-25 loss to colossus South Africa and talked cockily approaching Friday night's match with England, which held the promise of a startling upset.

As they anticipated that, they also set to make a different impression by playing England in green hair. In gratitude to an Irish bookmaker that made a smallish investment in the club, a reported 22 players had colored their hair a rather electric lime-daiquiri hue.

As they showed off their greenness, shown on half a head in several news photographs, their management reportedly met with World Cup honchos Friday over whether green hair constituted an infraction, which had to rank among the all-time most unfortunate meetings to have missed.

Reaching a solemn verdict, the International Rugby Board released a statement that must have delighted shampoo manufacturers everywhere: "No player will take the field with green hair. The matter is closed."

The Tongans, fortunately, had used a temporary dye.

In the end, England rallied from a 10-3 deficit to defeat Tonga, 36-20, and advance to a quarterfinal against Australia on Oct. 6 in a rematch of the 2003 final.

Tonga, which had won only two of 13 World Cup matches before this year, would have reached the quarterfinals for the first time.

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