The showdown between New Zealand and Tonga was hyped to be one of the key matchups of this year’s Rugby League World Cup, and it sure didn’t disappoint. After a couple of weeks of such drastic score differentials, it was quite cathartic to see a game in which neither side managed to score a try until the twentieth minute, and in which the winning margin shrunk to a converted try in the final minutes. All in all, it was the most exciting game of footy since the Cowboys beat the Roosters in the NRL semi-final – much more intense than the Storm’s humdrum victory – and a historic moment in the evolution of Tongan rugby league on the world stage.
The Tongan victory was all the remarkable in that New Zealand were more or less dominant over the first half. Despite putting down the first points with a penalty goal, the Mata Ma’a didn’t score a single try over these forty minutes, even if they chipped away at the Kiwis more than might have been expected. Thirteen minutes in, New Zealand managed to apply some pressure with a series of well-timed passes from Shaun Johnson and RTS sending the ball across to the right corner, where it seemed almost inevitable that Jordan Rapana would do his customary magic and ground the first try, only for the Raiders winger to fumble the Steeden at the last minute and send it into space, gifting Tonga the scrum.
Two tackles into the next set, Jason Taumalolo made massive metres after contact with his single best run of the afternoon so far – if you could even call it a run, since it quickly turned into a leisurely walk, as he took a couple of New Zealand defenders a couple of metres just for fun. While Tui Lolohea’s fifth tackle kick may have ricocheted off a Kiwi defender, Tonga had still built up a considerable amount of momentum thanks to the New Zealand error, as their fans began to glimpse that they might have a distant chance of winning this.
On the next set, the Kiwis put in some of their deftest moves of the afternoon, including Marty Taupau’s single best offload, as he spun around in the tackle and lobbed the ball over to Kodi Nikorima before being brought to ground, leading to a brilliant cut-out pass from Nikorima to Johnson a couple of tackles later. It all came to nought, however, when Ata Hingano cleaned up Johnson’s fifth-tackle kick as clinically as could be desired, with the Mate Ma’a putting a pin in the New Zealand resurgence before it had a chance to grow legs.
All in all, then, it was a testament to Tonga that New Zealand didn’t manage to put down their first try until twenty minutes in, although when it did come it was one of the most cathartic moments in the World Cup so far – partly because it was the longest we’ve had to wait for a try in any of the fixtures, and partly because this also marked Dallin Watene Zelezniak’s first points in Kiwi colours after a couple of frustrating moments across the first two New Zealand games.
It didn’t hurt, either, that the Panthers winger started the set with the single best clean-up of the night, slamming to ground to scoop up the Tongan high determined ball as if to outdo Hingano’s spectacular shutdown of Johnson’s fifth-tackle kick the set before. At the other end of the field, a pair of stunning cut-out passes – one looping, one shorter – from Adam Blair and Dean Whare put DWZ in possession on the edge, where he showcased his trademark speed and footwork to outrun David Fusitua (and leave Konrad Hurrell far behind) while remaining just in the field of play, before slamming the ball to earth in the corner.
If that weren’t excitement enough, the fans were gifted an incredible sequence on the back of DWZ’s four points, as New Zealand recovered the sense of entitlement and confidence that had been a bit dented over the first part of the game, forcing Tonga to put in their most sustained goal-line defence of the night. It started with an inside pass that almost put RTS over, and accelerated after Tonga touched the ball and granted the hosts a fresh set, as the Kiwis explored every possible way of getting through the Mate Ma’a defence.
During these critical moments, every tackle had the intensity of a full set, so it was glorious for Tonga when Danny Levi dropped the ball while trying to burrow through the defence and ground it right beneath the posts, granting the visitors the scrum feed for the biggest let off of the afternoon so far. Yet that just made it all the more momentous when the Kiwis put down points a set later, thanks again to some brilliant stuff from DWZ down the other end of the field, although this time it was a terrific run that got New Zealand in gear, setting up his wing partner to put down points, at the end of an extended sequence that commenced with an outstanding offload from Tapine to Johnson just as the Canberra second-rower was being brought to ground.
That cleared up space for Johnson to put in arguably his best bit of organisation of the afternoon thus far – a no-look cut-out pass to Brad Takairangi that the Eels centre followed with another no-look pass to Rapana, who made up for his earlier disappointment with flair. From the time the ball left Johnson’s hands to the time that Rapana put it to earth, none of the players handling it looked directly where they were passing or placing it – a testament to the unspoken and intuitive synergy of the Kiwi outfit.
Six minutes out from the break, the game reached possibly the most convulsive heights of the World Cup so far, after Nikorima was trapped in the in goal area, forcing the first goal line dropout of the afternoon. On the first tackle, a high shot from Nelson Asofa-Solomona on Tevita Pangai Junior burst into a full-out fracas, with Siliva Havili coming in to have a say before Tonga were awarded the penalty.
History repeated itself somewhat on the second and third tackles of the subsequent set, as Asofa-Solomona, Pangai Junior and Havili all found themselves grappling for possession, with the Storm frontrower actually putting another high one in, albeit not quite as obviously as the first time around. It was all the more remarkable, then, when Tonga managed to rapidly shift the Steeden over to the left edge, thanks to a series of quick-thinking passes from Hingana and Mahe Fonua that sent Daniel Tupou over the line, only for Hingano’s pass to be called forward, as Tonga were forced to subsume all their frustration back into the game.
That frustration only intensified when RTS put down the third New Zealand try a minute out from the break, off the back of a terrific pass from Takairangi, who slammed through a tackle from Fonua and offloaded to his fullback, leaving Tonga scrambling to try and regather their line. At first, it seemed as if the Eels centre had broken the tackle, but the replay actually showed that he had broken free – a terrible moment for Tonga on the back of their disappointment a couple of minutes before, not least because the retrospective way in which the try was determined made it seem just that bit more effortless, as if the Kiwis had managed to coast through one of Fonua’s biggest tackles of the night without Tonga even recognising that it had happened.
With Johnson slotting through his second conversion of the night, and the Mata Ma’a left tryless with a 16-2 scoreline, it suddenly felt that we might be in for another World Cup landslide, no matter how close it had seemed in the opening minutes, as if RTS had deftly stolen the last-minute momentum-builder that should have belonged to Tonga. Of course, that fairly conventional end to the first half just made the second all the more exciting and unexpected, since for all their supremacy at this point, New Zealand would only score one more try, leaving the rest of the pointscoring to the visitors as the next stanza escalated.
That said, the Kiwis came back into the second half confident in the assurance that they have never lost a World Cup match after leading at half time, and almost scored in the first set, but had to be content with a goal line dropout after Fusitua was forced to slam a deft Johnson grubber into touch before Takairangi got it to ground. They almost did the same thing on the next set, too, but this time Fusitua made it back into the field of play – just – as the Tongan team doubled down on the back of a hard run from Tupou and gained themselves an additional set of six up the other end of the field after.Takairangi tried to intercept, but actually knocked on, a short pass from Hingano.
Once again, Tupou started things with a hard run at the line, after Havili tried to burrow through, with Hurrell taking possession on the third tackle and getting the ball to ground a millimetre or two short before losing possession, in what initially looked as if it might just have been the miracle try of the afternoon. The Kiwis seemed set to put down more points after a damaging, high-speed, footwork-heavy run from Rapana, only for Asofa-Solomona to cough it up on the very next tackle, returning the scrum feed to the Mate Ma’a, who got a penalty to boot on the first tackle.
From there, Hurrell put in a hard run on the second tackle, getting Tonga right up on the line and starting a series of punishing attacking movements that culminated with Lolohea’s best fifth-tackle option of the night – a high, sharp kick that DWZ didn’t even bother to properly contest, allowing Fusitua to catch it on the full and get some closure after conceding the goal line dropout that started the Kiwi surge in the first place, as the Warriors winger wrestled out of DWZ’s way before he even had the opportunity to formulate the tackle, slamming the ball to ground with Hurrell storming up from behind to offer support if necessary.
It was a stunning way for Tonga to put down their first try of the game, narrowing the gap to ten points and ensuring that they would be a force to be reckoned with over this second stanza if they could manage to put down the next try as well. They did too, after a particularly convulsive period of play leading up to the one hour mark that saw the Steeden change possession multiple times and New Zealand unable to manage the consistency that might have been expected of them, even if they had some fairly dominant moments.
Once again, the Tongan try came at the end of the set, and, once again, it spoke to a forward pack that had done their best to tire out the New Zealand defence, leaving them vulnerable to one of the deftest mind games of the night. Finding himself bereft of any real clear fifth-tackle options, Lolohea had a bit of space to run the ball but instead chose to lob it over to Hurrell, in a harbour bridge pass that seemed to signal that the Mate Ma’a were out of ideas, only for Hurrell to abruptly shift the direction of play away from the wing with a rapid inside pass to Fusitua, who burned up from an oblique angle to take possession, threading his way through a disheveled New Zealand defence and grounding the ball for his second try of the night in front of a crowd of rapturous Tonga supporters.
It was a momentous try, and it felt right when cemented the foundational role he’d played in the opening two tries by slotting through his first conversion of the match. It felt even more incredible, a couple of minutes later, when Lolohea put down his own try, bringing the Mate Ma’a momentarily level with the Kiwis, until Sio Siua Taukeioha’s subsequent conversion put them ahead for the first time in the game since their opening penalty goal.
The try itself, however, was even more audacious – a simple intercept on a pass intended for Johnson that allowed the Wests Tigers five-eighth to run a graceful line to put the ball beneath the posts with no hope of being taken down by the Kiwi defence. Seeing one of their best players outsmarted by Tonga must have been a shock for New Zealand, especially given Johnson’s spotty history with intercepts, and there’s no doubt that this chink in the Kiwi armour gave the Mate Ma’a the belief they needed to crash over again a couple of minutes later.
This time, it was Will Hopoate who put down the points, although the real tryscoring move arguably came from Manua, who, at the end of a sliding sequence of play, put in some deft footwork to outmanoeuvre Nikorima and get the ball across to his fullback to cross over. Few would argue that this was one of the most incredible sequences in this Rugby League World Cup – in any Rugby League World Cup – and the Tongan team and supporters seemed to know it, with the national anthem echoing around the stadium as Taukeiaho set up his tee. By this point, the entire Mate Ma’a appeared to be galvanised by the collective belief of the crowd to an extent that we rarely see outside Origin, Grand Finals, and only in regular NRL games in which there is a sudden and unexpected shift in fortune.
Things started to get tight again, however, when RTS put down the fourth New Zealand try eight minutes out from the end, off the back of one of the most stunning Kiwi sets of the game, as a barking-down from Johnson appeared to have motivated the hosts to put in everything they could muster against the resurgent Tongan outfit. In one incredible tackle, DWZ received the ball in the left corner, only to realise that there was nothing doing and pop it back to Whare, who got it onto RTS in turn, with the fullback sending it on to Asofa-Solomona for a massive charge at the line.
From there, the Storm forward seemed set to take a tackle only to spontaneously and somewhat spottily send the ball backawards, where RTS recollected it and then, finally, had the opportunity to translate his legendary footwork into points, dodging and weaving through the Tongan defence to put down a much-needed try, making to a two-point game once Johnson had converted, and forcing Tonga to put in the match of their life over the final eight minutes.
With four minutes to go, Asofa-Solomona offloaded to Johnson as he was poking his nose through the line midway through the New Zealand tackle count, only for the Warriors halfback to cough up the ball at exactly the wrong moment, returning the Steeden to Tonga who must have been thinking about a field goal as they slammed at the KIiw line for possibly the second or third last time of the night.
They didn’t need the kick, however, with Fusitua crossing over for his third and final try of the night and into the Rugby League history books, off the back of a nice offload from Hurrell right in the corner, in the midst of a low tackle from Rapana that DWZ also glimpsed right as it was occurring, but was unable to clean up. To make things just that little more suspenseful, Taukeiaho didn’t convert this time around, meaning that the Mate Ma’a were only a converted try ahead with two minutes to go.
Still, they clearly had all the momentum at this point, and it would have been superhuman if New Zealand had managed to win now, in the most stunning and rousing game this year since the Cowboys’ penultimate 29-16 finals victory over the Roosters. For a moment, there, Nikorima almost appeared to have done the impossible, breaking into open space with thirty seconds on the clock, but with New Zealand knocking on a couple of minutes later the Tongans had entered the history books, and were almost too overwhelmed by the emotional gravity of it to do much in the final seconds, with Taumalolo appropriately taking possession of the ball after the scrum before the final siren blew and the victory was sealed, in one of the greatest games of this or any Rugby League World Cup.