I don't think I have ever been as relieved to hear a final whistle when reporting on a game of Rugby League as I was when England somehow held on for a 20-18 success over Tonga in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Semi-Final.
The sheer power and passion of the choral harmonising as the Tongan fans gave full voice to their favourite hymns and folk songs would have lifted the roof off any cathedral, and it sent shivers down your spine; brought you out in goosebumps and left you feeling you would never be nearer to God than you were then! It was almost a spiritual experience of the most unnerving kind.
But if the songs were a prayer for a Tongan comeback, they were certainly heard where it mattered – the hearts and minds of the Tongan players!!
To set the scene, it was the very first full international between the two countries and one that will forever live in the memory of anyone and everyone who was fortunate enough to be in Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium on that ‘red letter’ day. I was a member of the associated International Press Corps, (something I’d been masquerading as since 1995) and with England being hot favourites to end a run of four successive defeats at this stage of the competition it looked like it should be just a regular day at the office. But the Press (and England) obviously hadn’t reckoned on the incredible Tongan supporters (even turning up on their marriage day) who created an all-enveloping ‘sea of red’ that surged towards the stadium, through the turnstiles, up, onto and over the stadium terraces, to engulf the entire arena and almost submerge the few hardy England fans that tried to stand in the way of the crimson tide!
We hadn’t really heeded the potential warning of a Tongan 28-22 Group game success over New Zealand in a noisy Hamilton to surprisingly finish top of Group B. But with Tonga boosted before the tournament began through the declarations of Jason Taumololo and Andrew Fifita that they would represent their Tongan heritage rather than their respective birth places of New Zealand and Australia, the Tongan people knew this team was going to be something special. That move inspired Manu Ma’u to decline New Zealand selection whilst David Fusitu’a, Solomone Kata, Tui Lolohea, and Si Suie Taukeiaho also declared for Mate Ma’a to then be joined by Michael Jennings who opted out of playing for Fiji.
Tonga had despatched Scotland (50-6) and Samoa (32-18) at the Group stages before a 24-22 quarter-final defeat of Lebanon proved rather more difficult than anticipated. England were also unbeaten in their last three matches. They had fallen 18-4 in the opening game to Australia, but then seen off Papua New Guinea in the quarters. They were seemingly hitting form at the right time! And so it seemed as England had Gareth Widdop in superb form to grab a try, kick a couple of conversions and put Jermaine McGilvary in for a score that saw England chisel out a 12-0 interval lead against a rock solid, but arguably wasteful Tonga. A Widdop penalty on 49 minutes (and how crucial would that be?), was followed on 67 minutes by a another Widdop-created try, this time for John Bateman and we thought it was all over!
But it wasn’t! Maybe it was the fact that the King of Tonga, King Tupou VI and his Queen, Nanasipau’u were in the audience! Maybe it was the fact that despite creating numerous chances that they couldn’t take, the Tongan boys needed a lift from their relatives, neighbours, mums, dads, wives, sons or daughters! But suddenly as one, the sea of red started to emanate the most magically marvellous of musical harmonies, which in other places may have been likened to the Mermaid’s call or that of the Greek Sirens trying to captivate and entice the sailors onto the rocks.
In this case it summoned up a storm that whipped the Tongan players and their fans into a frenzy and suddenly it was England’s defence which was all at sea! The Tongan forwards were crashing forward and Tevita Pangai Junior shot over from dummy-half on 73 minutes for Sio Siua Taukeiaho to goal. Three minutes later it was Silvia Havili scooting 20 metres for another goaled try to close the gap to 20-12. Surely that was that we thought. But it wasn’t, and when Taumoloa put in Lolohea for a third goaled try with less than two minutes remaining, England were in shock and the singing could be heard across the city, the bay the province – probably in Tonga!
In the final act of the game McGilvary lost the ball, Andrew Fifita, regathered, lost it under a tackle from Widdop and again recollected to seemingly crash over for the winner! The noise was of volcanic proportions! But the thunderclap of disappointment struck like a lightening charge as the ‘try’ was ruled out and the Video referee left redundant. England had survived! Just! But what a comeback, what an atmosphere and what a feeling of relief for the few England fans and Press members within the ground. The Tongan singing went on long into the early hours – this was a victory in defeat - whilst for England it was a welcome quiet night of reflection as they slowly tried to get the hairs to lie down on the back of their necks!
Get tickets to the Final Test of the three match series as England face Tonga at AMT Headingley. The fixture is part of a double-header with England Women facing Wales at 12PM on Saturday. Get your tickets here!