An impressive second half performance saw England edge out Tonga in the first instalment of this autumn’s three-match test series, 22-18 victors come the final hooter in St Helens.
Here are our five takeaways from the Totally Wicked Stadium press box…
In a first meeting of these two nations on English soil since 2006, Shaun Wane’s hosts assumed advantage in the test series, with some form of shield on offer for the eventual winners as well as pride.
Filled with NRL quality, as referenced by Wane in the build-up to this opener, Kristian Woolf’s Tonga have the size advantage but England came through unscathed and stood up to the challenge.
It wasn’t without its tests, heading in level at 12-12 come the break after Isaiya Katoa came up short with a penalty effort from around 35 metres out.
A mightily impressive second half showing with two tries of their own did the job for Wane’s men though, with the only mark on the scoresheet a late four-pointer from winger Tolutau Koula after Tom Burgess had seen one disallowed at the other end.
Job done in game one, it’s onto Huddersfield and the John Smith’s Stadium next Saturday – October 28.
England youngsters impress on debut
Mikey Lewis was handed Man of the Match by broadcasters BBC on his senior international debut, and we’d be in agreement with that.
He made the break which got England going with a first try through Toby King in the first half before showing a quick turn of pace to dummy and get away from numerous defenders as he got over for a four-pointer of his own.
Lewis’ all-round performance was – in the most part – polished, and alongside Harry Smith who was almost perfect with the boot, suspended skipper George Williams’ absence wasn’t really noticeable.
Credit must also go to Leeds Rhinos star Harry Newman, making his senior debut for England on the back of a difficult season at club level. Boss Wane vowed that the Rhinos would get a better player back following this test series, and if he can produce a couple more performances like this one, that may well be the case.
The last youngster deserving of some praise is Jack Welsby. In familiar territory where he plays his club rugby, he became England’s youngest-ever captain. We’ve come to expect the type of performance he put in this afternoon, but we shouldn’t take it for granted. He is the future.
Johnstone makes game-winning return to international duty
Having finished joint-top of the Super League try-scoring charts with Abbas Miski, and been nominated for the Man of Steel, Catalans Dragons flier Tom Johnstone made a storming return to international action.
Replacing the hospitalised Dom Young, Johnstone came into Wane’s 13 for a first cap since 2018, with his brace of tries in the second half ultimately won the game for England.
The first of those was handed to him on a plate by the ever-impressive Welsby throwing an inch-perfect cut-out pass, but the winger had to carve out the second himself.
He intercepted a Tongan pass out on that left flank to race away and cross under the sticks. Smith converted to take the score out to 22-12, and put it beyond the visitors.
Try-scoring Tyson creates history
Tyson Frizell’s 25th minute try put Tonga ahead for the first time in the contest, and added a bit extra – at least individually – to a day which was already seeing him make history.
Having already pulled on a shirt for both Australia and Wales, the second-rower became the first player in the game’s history to represent three different nations.
Love Rugby League caught up with him earlier this week, hearing the Wollongong-born ace’s incredible story.
Strong St Helens turnout
There had been a lot of talk in the lead up to the test series opener about ticket sales, and how it may have been difficult to shift them for a game which came just eight days after the Super League Grand Final.
That didn’t prove to be the case, with an attendance of 12,898 at the Totally Wicked Stadium. It’s not describable as ‘bumper’, but there were plenty inside the Totally Wicked Stadium making their voices heard, with a good Tongan following thrown in for good measure too.
The only downside was an official 10 minute delay in kick-off due to issues with supporters getting in the crowd through the ticket scanners.
It got underway at 2.47pm in the end, 17 minutes after initially billed, with those problems and then the pre-match entertainment of both anthems and Tonga’s Sipi Tau. For context, England’s mid-season win against France was watched live by just 8,422.