England and Tonga aren’t historically frequent foes, and England coach Shaun Wane knows all too well how dangerous that can be following last year’s World Cup debacle.
His side were dumped out of the delayed showpiece on home soil by Samoa at the semi-final stage 11 months ago in front of more than 40,000 supporters at the Emirates Stadium, the vast majority of which expected an at least comfortable win which would have set up a final showdown with Australia at Old Trafford the following week. Many already had their tickets booked in confidence.
Instead, Stephen Critchon’s golden-point drop goal will forever be etched into the history books for all the wrong reasons from an England perspective, sealing a 27-26 win for the visitors and taking them into that final against the now-12-time world champions Kangaroos.
To make matters worse where the weight of expectation was concerned, England had already hammered Samoa 60-6 in the opening game of the tournament, a nation they’d faced just three times ever before that point.
England head coach Shaun Wane fires warning shot about unfamiliar foes
Having thumped France 64-0 mid-season, Wane’s side have a real chance to lay down a marker of progress this autumn with a three-match test series against Kristian Woolf’s Tonga, the first of those games coming this Sunday – October 22 – at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium.
The Tongans are another nation who are – in the most part – an unknown quantity, with England too only having come up against them three times prior, the most recent of which a pulsating 20-18 win in the 2017 World Cup semi-final.
Ahead of a first meeting on English soil since 2006, the England boss warned his squad of the dangers of coming up against an opponent they’re not too familiar with.
He said: “We found that out last year against Samoa, that it’s a massive test, and we fell short last year. We learnt a lot of lessons and we’re up against another really talented team full of unbelievable athletes.
“It’s game on. We’ll find out [how far we’ve come] on Sunday. I’m very, very happy with the squad I’ve got, and I’m really excited about the young players that I’ve picked.
“I’m eager to see how they go and see how they perform in a really pressured environment against players that are 10 and 20 kilograms heavier than them.”
Wane lauds Tonga pack: ‘A massive challenge for us’
Quarter-finalists at last year’s World Cup, beaten by the Samoa side who went on to conquer England at The Emirates, Tonga too were disappointed with their showing on the grandest stage.
Headed up by a man who guided St Helens to three consecutive Super League titles – as well as a Challenge Cup – in Woolf, three Super League players – Konrad Hurrell, Will Hopoate & Tui Lolohea – are involved in this test series.
The remainder of their 20-strong travelling pack for the clashes at the Totally Wicked, John Smith’s Stadium and Headingley all ply their trade in the NRL, and England chief Wane only had good things to say about their opponents at Tuesday’s pre-series press conference.
He added: “They’re very, very talented and a lot of them play in an unbelievably good competition which I watch a lot.
“They’re great athletes, it’s going to be a massive challenge for us, and I admire a lot of their players. I’m really impressed with the type of players they are.
“That’s going to make it more exciting for some of my young players as well. I’m going to find out a lot about my players in the next three weeks.”