Speak to anyone who played in it, attended it, or even watched it on TV, and they will tell you that it remains one of the highlights of international rugby league over the past few decades. England somehow hanging on to see off a magnificent Tonga comeback in the last eight minutes of the World Cup semi-final will stay with lovers of the sport forever.
The atmosphere was incredible, with almost 30,000 Tongans turning Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium into a sea of red soundtracked by the most heart-bursting hymns from the stands. The game was compelling, England turning in a professional performance to dominate in the opening 72 minutes and build an untouchable-looking 20-0 lead.
And the comeback was remarkable as Kristian Woolf’s Tonga chalked up three tries in an incredible finish and then appeared to have scored a winner when Elliot Whitehead applied just enough pressure to force the ball from David Fifita’s grasp in the final two seconds of the match.
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That 20-18 England win truly was an epic sporting occasion, and it has paved the way for further rugby league sporting history with the announcement on Friday that the two nations will come head-to-head in a first ever Test series played over three weeks in October and November.
Tonga will visit these shores for fixtures in St Helens, Huddersfield and Leeds on consecutive weekends in the kind of showdown which affirms their place among the elite nations.
Following on from that 2017 semi-final run and their 2019 Oceania Cup win over Australia at Eden Park, the Mate Ma’a are now being taken seriously as a big-name attraction on the world stage, and a first ever Test series in the British Isles is the natural next step.
“There is no doubt that this is another historic moment for Tongan Rugby League,” head coach Woolf said upon confirmation of the tour. “This will be the first time one of the Pacific nations has been invited to play in a full three-Test series against England, in the place where our great game began.
“It is easy to forget that this is an honour usually only reserved for countries like Australia and New Zealand. I know our players are excited by this challenge, and are also keen to go back to England to try and prove what we can do in the Northern Hemisphere. We feel we did not showcase our best at last year’s World Cup, and this will be an opportunity for Tonga to correct that.”
There might be some rugby league fans who will be left underwhelmed by the inability to attract the Kangaroos or the Kiwis for a Test series, but to be of that mind is to underestimate the power of the Tongan team right now. With the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Konrad Hurrell and Daniel Tupou they have become one of the powerhouse outfits of the international game, and their narrow quarter-final exit to eventual finalists Samoa at the World Cup last autumn was arguably the game of the tournament.
With the Australian Rugby League Commission continuing to navel gaze in considering the State of Origin series over the international game, England can make great strides by testing themselves against a different weapon in Tonga rather than forever chasing the approval of the world champions.
That all means that the arrival of Tonga in the autumn is a moment of great opportunity for the sport in this country as well as in the Pacific. International rugby league can’t be just about England, Australia and New Zealand forever, and after the exploits of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji in recent World Cups they have more than earned their right to have three cracks at the founding fathers of the sport.
If the series contains even a quarter of the drama of that night in Auckland, it will be one hell of a show.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change