International rugby league you little superstar – what a test match that was, as England hung on by the skin of their teeth to defeat Tonga 20-18 to reach the World Cup final.
And despite building up a commanding lead for the best part of 70 minutes, the main emotion come full-time for our nation was relief, after Tonga almost pulled off the most incredible comeback. But now against the mighty Australia up in Brisbane, and for the first time in a generation, England will battle it out for the games ultimate prize.
Don’t let the final ten minutes blind you, for more than three quarters of the contest it was a performance of which many doubted England were capable of, but they came of age here in a terrific display, with NRL stalwarts James Graham and Gareth Widdop leading the way.
Wayne Bennett’s side were outstanding. Against a much higher quality opposition than they’ve come up against in recent weeks, England raised their game and looked better for it, which suggests that they will at least compete with the worlds best at Suncorp next week.
Make no mistake this was an encouraging and determined display, and best exhibited by veteran prop Graham, who may well be advancing into the final years of his career now, but he’s still as influential as ever, leading his sides go-forward and producing a heroic defensive effort to go with it. A warrior, Graham was aided by a stellar middle showing from Alex Walmsley and Tom Burgess, who were both solid off the interchange in coping with a monstrous Tongan pack.
England had to adapt as they lost both Josh Hodgson and Sean O’Loughlin to injuries, with the extent of either at this point unknown. Meanwhile Tonga for all their size and power were lacking in intelligence, and coughed up plenty of chances to score, despite five-eighth Tuimoala Lolohea running himself ragged. If they can address the pivot side to their armoury and learn how to manage games, then they have the capability to emulate what England did here and reach a final in the future. The Islanders played their part in a magnificent semi, that goes without saying, and they pushed their opposition until the final whistle.
But what happened in the final ten minutes seemed so unlikely as England built up a commanding 20-0 lead. They were almost perfect in the first half, with tries coming from Jermaine McGillvary and the starring Widdop. Playing from fullback in a role which really complements his running game, the St George Dragons star was on fire, tormenting Tonga in attack as he created havoc in a well structured, at least when Luke Gale wasn’t involved, attack.
It must be said England’s defence at this stage was also faultless, as they scrambled to keep Tonga out. It was some effort, and after a penalty goal and further try from John Bateman in the second half it looked like the job was done. But how wrong were we.
Tevita Pangai Junior got the Tongans on the board at last, with hooker Silvia Havili then exploiting a gap to score. Game on, and enhanced when Lolohea added a third try following a Jason Taumalolo break, ironically leaving the misfiring Gale, who’s current whereabouts are still unknown, on the deck.
That wasn’t even the final tale, and trailing by just two points Andrew Fifita looked certain to win the game, if not for a desperate and last ditch tackle from Elliot Whitehead, who it must be said was brilliant throughout.
Fifita was adamant the ball was stripped, meaning a potential video ref decision for a Tonga winning try, but the officials were confident it was a loose carry.
Big and ballsy call, but the right one for a relived England outfit.
Tonga Starting XIII: 1. William Hopoate, 2. Daniel Tupou, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Konrad Harrell, 5. David Fusitua, 6. Tuimoala Lolohea, 7. Mafoa’aeata Hingano, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Silvia Havili, 10. Sio Suia Taukeiaho, 11. Manu M’au, 12. Sika Manu, 13. Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14. Sione Kaota, 15. Peni Terepo, 16. Tevita Pangai Junior, 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila.
Tonga Tries: Pangai Junior, Havili, Lolohea. Goals Taukeiaho 3/3
England Starting XIII: 1. Gareth Widdop, 2. Jermaine McGillvary, 3. Kallum Watkins, 4. John Bateman, 5. Ryan Hall, 6. Kevin Brown, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Chris Hill, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. James Graham, 11. Sam Burgess, 12. Elliot Whitehead, 13. Sean O’Loughlin. Interchange: 14. Alex Walmsley, 15. Thomas Burgess, 16. Ben Currie, 17. James Roby.
England Tries: McGillvary, Widdop, Bateman. Goals: Widdop 4/4
Scoring System: 0-6, 0-12, 0-14, 0-20, 6-20, 12-20, 18-20