International rugby league enjoyed one of its greatest-ever days, while the complexion the 2017 Rugby League World Cup changed irrevocably courtesy of Mate Ma’a Tonga’s stunning 28-22 upset of New Zealand in Hamilton.
Trailing by 14 points at halftime, Tonga dominated the second stanza and the rattled Kiwis were sucked under by an irresistible red wave.
A thunderous, predominantly pro-Tonga crowd set the scene and Nelson Asofa-Solomona coming face to face with Andrew Fifita during the haka was the entrée for an explosive start, but New Zealand weathered the early storm and took control.
Well-worked moves on each edge saw Dallin Watene-Zeleniak (20th minute) and Jordan Rapana (28th minute) dot down, while a baffling no-try call against Tongan winger Daniel Tupou – the touch judge calling a knock-on and referee Gerard Sutton declining to send it upstairs – was compounded by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s try just before the break for a 16-2 lead.
But Tonga were a different team after the resumption, and posted their first try through a brilliant leap from winger David Fusitu’a to glove a Tuimoala Lolohea cross-field kick in the 48th minute.
Fusitu’a was in again just before the hour mark after deft lead-up work from Konrad Hurrell, while Tonga snatched the lead following a diabolical looping pass from Russell Packer on the Kiwis’ 30-metre line, allowing Lolohea to race away for a try.
Ben Murdoch-Masila brushed aside Kodi Nikorima and sent Will Hopoate under the posts to make it three tries in seven minutes and a 24-16 lead for Tonga as one of the all-time boilovers began to materialise.
The Kiwis regrouped and belatedly gained some traction, Tuivasa-Sheck’s determined, hot-stepping charge to the tryline chopping the deficit to just two points. But subsequent possession was squandered by the ‘home’ side, and Hurrell laid on Fusitua’s third with three minutes on the clock to restore a six-point buffer.
New Zealand had a chance to salvage a draw in the final minute after Nikorima charged down a Lolohea kick, but Watene-Zelezniak – Fusitu’a’s hapless opposite – capped a horror second half by spilling the ball on the second tackle on Tonga’s 40.
The post-siren scenes in the crowd and on the field emphasised what a significant result it was for Tongan rugby league, and the code in general.
Tears flowed freely from the men in red jumpers, while the Kiwis were left to wonder how they had squandered a massive halftime lead – but even the saltiest New Zealand fan could not help but admire Tonga’s triumph and how the hyped-up grudge match had so spectacularly lived up to expectations.
High-profile defector Jason Taumalolo was relatively well-contained by his ex-teammates, but he still led every forward on the field with 174 metres from 14 carries. Likely Kiwis inclusions Fusitu’a and Sio Siua Taukeiaho, who racked up 161 metres from 17 runs up front, were immense, while ex-New Zealand rep and Warriors reject Lolohea enjoyed arguably his finest hour at senior level.
The Kiwis’ best were Tuivasa-Sheck (222 metres, four line-breaks and two tries), bench behemoth Asofa-Solomona (17 runs for 156 metres and 21 tackles) and prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (15 runs for 156 metres and 27 tackles). But captain Adam Blair (four runs for 39 metres) and Martin Taupau (eight runs for 90 metres) were frustratingly anonymous, and Shaun Johnson struggled to assert himself in a disappointing kicking performance.
Tonga’s price to reach the final has shortened dramatically after topping Group B and finding themselves on the easier side of the draw, facing Lebanon in the quarters in Christchurch next week before a likely semi showdown with England in front of another partisan crowd at Mt Smart Stadium.
New Zealand, meanwhile, are on a semi-final collision course with Australia – but first they must face another Pacific examination in Wellington next Saturday in the form of an ultra-dangerous Fiji combination.
Despite some subpar performers, it’s difficult to see David Kidwell changing up the Kiwis’ line-up too much, though Watene-Zelezniak has to be under pressure from the far more reliable Jason Nightingale for the right-wing spot.
Tonga 28 (David Fusitu’a 3, Tuimoala Lolohea, Will Hopoate tries; Sio Siua Taukeiaho 3, Lolohea goals) d New Zealand 22 (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck 2, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rapana tries; Shaun Johnson 3 goals) at Waikato Stadium.
Scotland came desperately close to making it two international boilovers in a matter of hours, ultimately exiting the tournament via a courageous 14-all draw with Toa Samoa that allowed the island nation to progress to the quarter-finals on for-and-against.
The Bravehearts, who conceded 124 points in the opening fortnight of the competition and sent three players – including captain Danny Brough – home last weekend for violating code of conduct, took an early lead in Cairns through Lewis Tierney’s fifth-minute try.
Junior Paulo responded for Samoa in the 12th minute, but Scotland second-rower Frankie Mariano crossed for a try 12 minutes before the break and the underdogs defended grimly to head to the sheds 14-6 in front.
Samoa clawed their way to level the scores with 14 minutes left after unconverted tries to Matthew Wright and Young Tonumaipea, but Scotland looked the most likely to break the deadlock in the dying minutes.
Several field goal attempts from Scotland halves Danny Addy and Oscar Thomas swung agonisingly wide as Samoa scraped their way into the knockout phase. Scotland’s gutsy performance was destined to get lost in the euphoria of Tonga’s win over New Zealand, but it was an admirable way to end a trying campaign for the Bravehearts.
Samoa face the equivalent of a rugby league Everest next week when they face Australia in Darwin.
Scotland 14 (Lewis Tierney, Frankie Mariano tries; Danny Addy 3 goals) drew with Samoa 14 (Junior Paulo, Matthew Wright, Young Tonumaipea tries; Wright goal) at Barlow Park, Cairns.
Australia scratched their way to an ultimately comfortable 34-0 win over a gallant Lebanon outfit at the Sydney Football Stadium, though it was an undeniably disjointed and frustrating night out for the Kangaroos.
Cam Munster opened the scoring in the eighth minute and James Maloney crossed in the 25th, but the scoreline remained just 10-0 until 10 minutes into the second half, when Munster – playing in the centres after debuting at halfback against France – bagged his second double in as many Tests via a dazzling solo run.
Boyd Cordner extended the lead to 22 points in the 55th minute, but Australia was again stymied for an extended period before Dane Gagai and Tom Trbojevic nabbed maiden Test tries in the dying minutes.
Keeping a clean defensive sheet was arguably the highlight for the Kangaroos in a match that failed to solve any of Mal Meninga’s modest selection dilemmas – except, perhaps, that Munster is an absolute must somewhere in Australia’s 17.
Lebanon, meanwhile, showed enough spirit to suggest they will be no walkovers when they take on flavour of the month Tonga in Christchurch next weekend.
Australia 34 (Cam Munster 2, James Maloney, Boyd Cordner, Dane Gagai, Tom Trbojevic tries; James Maloney 4, Cameron Smith goals) d Lebanon 0 at Sydney Football Stadium.