By Margie McDonald
A Tongan brick wall managed to corral a top-flight Australian team to upset the Kangaroos 16-12 in Auckland on Saturday night and usher in a new era of international rugby league.
It had been 41 years since Australia had been beaten by a nation other than New Zealand, Great Britain or England. And that was France back in 1978.
With the Tongans defending like men possessed and their supporters in the Eden Park stands singing their heroes to victory, the Pacific Island nation’s greatest victory unfolded before everyone’s eyes.
But that’s not to say it was a complete surprise. In 2017 Tonga knocked over New Zealand 28-22 in the World Cup. And then a week ago they subdued the might of Great Britain 14-6.
They had said all week they wanted to make it three wins over Tier One nations in a row, and they completed their mission.
It was the size of Tonga’s forward pack and bench that would have made formidable opposition for any side. But it was the experience and speed of premiership-winning players like Daniel Tupou, Will Hopoate and Michael Jennings that gave the Pacific nation real sting out wide as well.
Tonga had an injection of forward talent in Broncos pair Joe Ofahengaue and Tevita Pangai Junior coming into the team after the win over Great Britain. Their clubmate and centre Kotoni Staggs also joined them and was moved into halfback alongside No.6 Tuimoala Lolohea.
After Hopoate scored the opening try in the 20th minute it was Staggs who kicked the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
Another Bronco – Payne Haas – set up Australia’s first try not long after he came on the field as replacement for Josh Papalii. Haas ran across field before finding Jack Wighton, who doubled back and wrong-footed the Tongan defenders in the 27th minute.
Scores didn’t stay level for long, when Paul Vaughan spun out of a Pangai tackle to score Australia’s second try three minutes later.
The 12-6 lead to the Kangaroos stayed that way until half-time despite the majority Tongan crowd breaking out into hymn singing near the break.
Vaughan and Haas’s arrival seemed to change the complexion of the game after Tonga dominated early. The pair made 15 runs and four tackle breaks between them in the final 20 minutes of the opening half. But they were matched in intensity through the likes of Ben Murdoch-Masila, Jason Taumalolo, Ofahengaue, Andrew Fifita and Sio Taukeiaho.
In the second half, Tonga again came out guns blazing with Daly Cherry-Evans and James Tedesco holding up Staggs over the line. But no-one could stop Michael Jennings scoring in the 45th minute for the Tongans to edge closer 12-10.
Tempers became frayed when an Ofahengaue tackle under Latrell Mitchell’s ribcage brought players from both sides running in. The crowd took the match to a new emotional level not long afterwards, when Pangai crossed in the 53rd minute to put Tonga in front for the first time 16-12.
And despite several frantic Australia runs at the Tongan line in the final 10 minutes, they could not make the last pass connect, or break the final tackle.