England knew this wouldn’t be easy. Tonga had stunned New Zealand with a magnificent second-half performance to win 28-22 in Hamilton and topped Group B as a result. Boasting three former Australia stars and seven ex-Kiwi internationals, this was a Tonga outfit which had persuaded many a naturalised player to return to their country of origin and give the Mate Ma’a a proper claim for honours at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Now they had reached the semi-final at a fervent Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, a city counting over 20,000 Tongans among its residents. This wasn’t officially an away game for England but it was as daunting and emotional an atmosphere as they would ever encounter, a sea of red in the crowd barely letting up for a moment. And with the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and David Fusitu’a on the field, there was also a fearsome unit in front of Wayne Bennett’s men.
Tonga had their offloading game working from the start, with every extra tackle England were forced to make resulting in sensational noise levels from the crowd. Even after Jermaine McGillvary had scored from a scrum play in the 10th minute, Tonga threw the ball about like a team 30-0 to the good rather than facing an early deficit.
- The time to shine is now: RLWC 2021
- RL Classics: England's last win over Australia
- England 16/1 fifth favourites for RLWC win - Betfred*
England battled their way into a 12-0 lead, Gareth Widdop twisting and turning his way over the line from an Elliott Whitehead pass, but while ever the Tongans were happy to keep the ball alive a two-score advantage was never going to be enough.
Widdop added a penalty early in the second half, and then when John Bateman took the full-back’s pass to score from close range 13 minutes from time it finally – finally! – felt like England had seen off the magnificent efforts of the Tongans. It had been gutsy as hell from the Wall of White, and their 20-0 lead said much about their quality and professionalism at both ends of the field.
But it wasn’t over. The Tongan flags in the crowd continued to be waved. The noise was ramped up another few decibels. And the team on the pitch came up with one massive effort to get back into the game.
With seven minutes remaining, Tevita Pangai Junior crashed over to sully England’s clean sheet. Taukeiaho converted, but at 20-6 surely it was nothing more than a consolation?
Four left. Tonga are all lateral runs as they look to pull the England defensive line out of shape, but then Siliva Havili bursts through on the last tackle after a speedy play-the-ball and they have another try back. Taukeiaho’s kick makes it 20-12. Surely not?
Two tackles later, Taumalolo shrugs off a pair of defenders, draws Widdop and feeds Tui Lolohea for a third Tonga try in five minutes. Suddenly it’s 20-18 and England look out on their feet.
Down to the final 10 seconds, and Tonga shift the ball left in England’s 20. Fifita breaks through an initial tackle but the ball goes to ground with a defender’s hand close to the ball. When Fifita regathers and crashes over, he believes he’s won the game and sent Tonga to the World Cup final.
But he turns to find that referee Matt Cecchin has ruled a knock-on and signalled full-time. Both teams look desperate. Tonga devastated, England exhausted, relieved, disbelieving. They had been in command for 73 minutes, but had so very nearly lost it.
If you speak to any Tonga fan about that occasion five years ago, they will tell you that Elliott Whitehead’s strip should have resulted in Fifita being awarded the try to cap the most improbable of comebacks. Yet for England supporters – and any follower of rugby league – this remains one of the most pulsating 80-minute periods they’ve ever witnessed. They had just… JUST made it to the World Cup final for the first time in 22 years.
England and Tonga are seeded to reconvene at the Emirates Stadium in the semi-final of this year’s Rugby League World Cup. But could our hearts really take another game like that all-timer in 2017?
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change