3 November 2019
The Tonga Invitational XIII has pulled off one of the greatest upsets in International Rugby League history, defeating world champions Australia 16-12 in an enthralling Test match at Eden Park.
The heroic Tongan side dominated the opening exchanges, while they overturned a six-point halftime deficit as the shell-shocked Kangaroos were trampled underfoot by a red-and-white stampede.
The Tongans’ historic boilover was the climax of a momentous Triple Header in Auckland that underlined the burgeoning state of the International game. Fiji Bati kicked off proceedings with an emphatic 44-18 victory over Oceania Cup Pool B favourites Toa Samoa, before the New Zealand Kiwis won a gripping series opener against the Great Britain Rugby League Lions 12-8.
But the day ultimately belonged to the Tongan Invitational XIII, who planted the island nation’s flag at the top of International Rugby League’s highest peak by defeating world champions Australia for the first time and sent the now-customary sea of red in the stands into raptures.
The 16-12 triumph over the Kangaroos – in what surely ranks as one of the greatest Test matches of all time – gives the Tongans a cleansweep of wins over the ‘big three’, following on from their groundbreaking 2017 Rugby League World Cup win against the Kiwis and last weekend’s boilover against the Lions in Hamilton.
Australia, who had never previously lost to a Tier 2 nation, clinched the Oceania Cup on points differential, with the Kangaroos, Kiwis and Tongans all finishing with one win apiece. The Tongan Invitational XIII would have needed to win by 22 points to grab the trophy – but the euphoria of this result means more than anything a piece of silverware could provide.
“I can’t really explain the feeling right now,” emotional Tongan prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho said post-match.
“It’s been a long journey for us, we’ve come a long way. We weren’t too sure we were going to get a game this year but full credit to the fans out here, they’ve supported us since day one.
“But man, it feels good to beat all three Tier 1 nations.”
Enthusiastic support of fans from all six countries created a festival atmosphere at Eden Park, while the time-honoured expressions of cultural and national pride before each encounter added to the enormous occasion. Toa Samoa’s Siva Tau, the Bati’s hymn ‘Noqu Masu’, the Kiwis’ haka and the Tongans’ Sipi Tau stirred pre-match emotions and set the tone for three passionately-fought Internationals.
Camaraderie amid the competitiveness was another standout feature of the day, despite what was at stake for each team.
“Today’s Triple Header at Eden Park once again demonstrated the positive direction International Rugby League is heading and the massive strides the game is making at this level,” International Rugby League Federation Southern Hemisphere General Manager Jeremy Edwards said.
“The atmosphere created by this wonderful, passionate crowd and the outstanding quality of all three Tests more than matched what was a momentous occasion for our code.
“Australia thoroughly deserve their capture of the inaugural Oceania Cup, but the Tongan team indisputably cemented their place among world Rugby League’s heavyweights. What an incredible victory, one no fan of the game will ever forget.
“Fiji Bati’s brilliant display to beat Toa Samoa – which many may have regarded as a surprise result –emphasised how many genuinely competitive nations we have at International level. They’ll be eager to seal their place in Group A of the 2020 Oceania Cup when they face Papua New Guinea at next week’s Double Header.
“New Zealand and Great Britain turned on a classic arm-wrestle, real edge-of-the-seat stuff – and no doubt the Lions will be desperate to square the series in Christchurch.”
The Tongan Invitational XIII rattled Australia from the outset with their physicality and willingness to keep the ball alive, which led to captain and fullback Will Hopoate scoring the first try in the 20th minute. But the Kangaroos regrouped and headed into halftime with a 12-6 lead after tries to Jack Wighton and Paul Vaughan in quick succession.
The Tongan side regained the ascendancy with an explosive start to the second half, however, with Michael Jennings crossing out wide and giant forward Tevita Pangai Jr muscling over in the 53rd minute in what would be the last scoring play of the match.
Chances to seal the result slipped agonisingly out of reach for the Tongans, but their intensity across the park and gutsy scrambling defence – particularly in the pulsating final minutes – kept the Kangaroos’ superstars at bay.
“Words can’t describe how I’m feeling right now,” veteran Tongan centre Jennings said.
“It’s a proud moment for our small country. It’s unreal. This is up there with winning a Grand Final.”
New Zealand’s showdown with Great Britain was tight and tense in the best traditions of Test Rugby League. The rivals were locked 2-all at the end of a first-half defensive slugfest, while the Kiwis were rocked by losing key playmaker Kieran Foran to a shoulder injury after just five minutes. But a piece of brilliance from Kiwis fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck soon after the resumption busted the game wide open, carving through the Lions’ defence and producing an exquisite flick pass for Jamayne Isaako to score.
The Kiwis took a 10-point lead through Corey Harawira-Naera. But after tempers threatened to boil over on multiple occasions, the Lions set up a grandstand finish via a try to Daryl Clark. The hosts needed a couple of courageous defensive stops from Tuivasa-Sheck and a miraculous, last-ditch try-saver from Kenny Bromwich on winger Jermaine McGillvary during a nerve-shredding final 10 minutes to close out the 12-8 win.
The result kept alive New Zealand’s unbeaten record against Great Britain and England on home soil since 1992. Meanwhile, Adam Blair became just the second player to make 50 Test appearances for the Kiwis and Benji Marshall celebrated his first win as Kiwis captain since 2011.
“It was a battle, a constant grind for the whole game,” Marshall said. “There were moments where we let our pressure slip and they capitalised. But in the end I’m really proud of the boys, not only to get the win but the fight at the end there.”
Fiji Batiproved their three consecutive Rugby League World Cup semi-final appearances were no fluke. Their offloading and powerful edge running – with back-rowers Viliame Kikau and D’Rhys Miller especially prominent – wreaked havoc as the underdogs raced to a shock 24-0 lead in even time. Toa Samoa temporarily stemmed the Bati’s flow and centre Tim Lafai belatedly put them on the scoreboard, but Kikau’s second barnstorming try gave Fiji an imposing 30-6 halftime advantage.
Samoa winger Jorge Taufua crossed twice in the second stanza and fullback Ronaldo Mulitalo produced an exciting kick-and-chase try on the siren. But another three-try onslaught from Fiji midway through the half – including a brilliant 50-metre effort finished off by Brayden Wiliame and a strong solo four-pointer from captain Kevin Naiqama – ensured a momentous 26-point victory few experts saw coming.
“The belief was there throughout the team,” Fiji wrecking-ball Kikau said.
“We knew coming into this week we were the underdogs. Samoa have got big names in their team, they’ve got heaps of NRL players, and we’ve got bit of a young bunch in our team.
“We talked about coming out here, enjoying the game and executing. I think that’s what the boys did.”
A bumper 2019 International Rugby League schedule continues at Christchurch’s Orangetheory Stadium next Saturday, November 9.
Fiji face Papua New Guinea in the opening encounter, before New Zealand and Great Britain square off in the second Test of their series.
The Bati will confirm their place in Group A of the 2020 Oceania Cup with a win – replacing the Kangaroos, who are scheduled to make a post-season tour of Britain – but the Kumuls can snatch that berth with a victory by more than 22 points.
The Great Britain Rugby League Lions then conclude their first tour in 13 years by heading to Port Moresby for a one-off Test against Papua New Guinea on November 16. And after Tonga’s history-making heroics of the past fortnight, few would say an upset is beyond the Kumuls!
GB LEAGUE LIONS TOUR AND OCEANIA CUP FIXTURES
9 NOV - ORANGETHEORY STADIUM, CHRISTCHURCH
4.30pm Gates Open
5.20pm Fiji v Papua New Guinea
8.00pm GBRL Lions v New Zealand
Tickets - www.ticketek.co.nz/league2019
16 NOV - OIL SEARCH STADIUM PORT MORESBY
11.00am Gates Open
3.00pm PNG Orchids v England Women
5.30pm Papua New Guinea v GBRL Lions
Tickets - www.ticketmastas.com