Riding home to a 28-22 win over the Kiwis in Saturday’s Rugby League World Cup classic at Hamilton, Tonga scored a major victory of David versus Goliath proportions.
Not that the powerful Tongans remotely resemble dwarfs in a physical sense. But like their South Pacific neighbours, Samoa and Fiji, they play for a tiny nation and are paid peanuts compared to their tier one opponents.
While some tier one players are expected to be paid $50,000 each for the tournament, the decision of several former Kiwi internationals to play for Tonga, the nation of their birth or heritage, has come at considerable personal sacrifice.
However there were no regrets judging from the joy on the faces of Jason Taumalolo, Sio Suia Taukeiaho, Manu Ma’u and three-try man of the match David Fusitu’a after their glorious Hamilton triumph.
In overcoming a 16-2 halftime deficit to storm home, Tonga showed courage, self-belief, power and genuine ability.
It was a win which NZ Warriors rejects Tuimoala Lolohea and Konrad Hurrell also relished with Lolohea scoring a try and Hurrell’s pass setting up two of Fusitu’a’s three.
Having publicly bagged Taumalolo for his late defection, Kiwis captain Adam Blair bravely led a strong defence which eventually crumbled under constant second half pressure when the Tongans played a superb power-packed game they couldn’t counter.
Nevertheless, it was disappointing that Sean Johnson wasn’t game to weave his magic when his team needed it most. Admittedly his defence has become more robust, but those dazzling sidestepping runs that were his trademark have become a thing of the past.
Hopefully that will change in the Kiwis’ Wellington quarter-final against Jarred Hayne’s Fiji, a team blessed with sizzling backs but not the forward depth of the Kiwis.
Great players like Jonathan Thurston, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater rise to the occasion on the biggest stage against their toughest opponents. Now is the time for nice guy Johnson to do the same.
Happily, fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is one player who has, capping several strong runs with a stunning second half try against Tonga to close the gap before Fusitu’a completed his hat-trick.
I query coach David Kidwell’s decision to opt for Kodi Nikorima as his No 6 ahead of Te Maire Martin, presumably in the belief he is the better defender.
However if you want someone who scores tries and sets them up for others, Martin would be my pick, especially after scoring three against Scotland who later drew 14-all with Samoa.
Meanwhile, Winston Read and Chris Wood were billed as the English premier league stars, but it was Ryan Thomas who won the hearts of fans during the All Whites’ exciting scoreless World Cup soccer draw against favourites Peru in Wellington.
Justifiably, coach Anthony Hudson praised the slightly built midfielder’s “fight and spirit” for his outstanding performance against a team ranked 112 places above the All Whites.
A pity champion striker Wood’s strained hamstring restricted him to just the final 20 minutes. However his presence did much to lift the team and rattle Peru who should be much tougher at home in Lima for the return.
Meanwhile the All Blacks looked jaded in scoring a jittery rugby win in Paris against France and can count themselves fortunate not having to face Ireland or England on current form.
- Ivan Agnew is award-winning sports writer and author