For once in my life I was completely speechless, watching Tonga vs Australia this Saturday morning.
Those Tongans. Wow. Another sea of red in Auckland. The passion. The singing. It was an incredible atmosphere. Spine tingling. I just sat in silence and admired it.
Tonga were led once again by Hull FC back rower Sika Manu, who actually shed tears during the national anthem. That was followed by an incredible routine of the famous Sipi Tau. The passion was evident. It’s hard not to admire.
On the field Manu’s effort, like many of his team-mates’, was heroic, but there’s a realisation that his knee is far from healthy. That’s a concern for all Hull FC fans and we just have to hope he rests up now and comes back to East Yorkshire for a steady pre-season.
The fact though that Manu is still the Tongan captain with all their forward supremacy on show just exemplifies how highly he is regarded. The mister. We’re lucky to have him, even if the last third of our season wasn’t the Manu we all knew and loved in his first two years. Ultimately injury took its toll. But there’s still a player there.
Moving on the Tongans proved once again that their passion is unrivalled, and that a ‘home’ fixture for Tonga is probably the pinnacle event in rugby league right now. What we witnessed there is unbeatable. It’s unique. The score was irrelevant. Watching it you’re just in awe.
Australia proved to be party poopers once again, but it didn’t halt the atmosphere. Tonga, sometimes to their detriment, played with no fear. They threw the ball about admirably but just lacked that little bit of guile in the halves. That calm head. That composing influence. They’ve got plenty of power. They just need some direction, but what a story they are.
Backed by an insane following, they put other countries to shame. Just 5,144 people watched England against France on Wednesday night. There was five times that at Mt Smart Stadium. All of them wearing red attire and creating a cauldron of noise.
England just about weathered that storm in the World Cup semi-final last year, defeating Tonga 20-18, and credit must go to Australia for how they handled the card thrown at them.
For an opposition side it must be the most intimidating atmosphere in the sport. But it must be said the Kangaroos were good. At fullback James Tedesco was outstanding, and captain Boyd Cordner was equally so. It’s no surprise that the duo won the NRL Premiership with Sydney Roosters this season.
Australia were clinical in the first half but they were helped as Tonga completed at just 58%. The second half was much better. Tonga had so much opportunity and field possession, but the Kangaroos defence stood firm. They showed two sides to their game really, the flashy attack, and then the stern resolute defence. As a contest though the second forty minutes was much more like it. It was brutal at times.
Tonga, with Sio Shia Taukeiaho playing a blinder, threw everything at Australia, but they just miss a creative spark in attack. They weren’t helped that their half back Ata Hingano went off injured. It was also their first game since the World Cup, whereas Australia would have learned lessons from their defeat to New Zealand at the same venue just last week.
The scoreboard says Australia won 30-16, but the real winner again was the superstar that is international rugby league. We need to keep growing and nurturing it, as it’s definitely the pinnacle of our sport.
Tonga Starting XIII: 1. Will Hopoate, 2. Daniel Tupou, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Solomone Kata, 5. David Fusitu’a, 6. Tuimoala Lolohea, 7. Ata Hingano, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Siliva Havili, 10. Sio Suia Taukeiaho, 11. Tevita Pangai Junior, 12. Sika Manu, 13. Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14. Sione Katoa, 15. Addin Fonua-Blake, 16. Joe Ofahengaue, 21. Ben Murdoch-Masila.
Tonga Tries: Pangai Junior, Tupou, Kata. Goals: Taukeiaho 1/2, Lolohea 1/1
Australia Starting XIII: 1. James Tedesco, 2. Dane Gagai, 3. Tom Trbojevic, 4. Latrell Mitchell, 5. Valentine Holmes, 6. Luke Keary, 7. Daly Cherry-Evans, 8. David Klemmer, 9. Damien Cook, 10. Jordan McClean, 11. Boyd Cordner, 12. Felise Kaufasi, 13. Josh McGuire. Interchange: 14. Ben Hunt, 15. Jake Trbojevic, 6. Tyson Frizell, 17. Aaron Woods.
Australia Tries: Cherry Evans, T.Trbojevic 2, Holmes 2, Tedesco. Goals: Holmes 5/7