England reached their first Rugby League World Cup final in 22 years as they narrowly beat Tonga 20-18 in Auckland on Saturday.
England led 12-0 at the break thanks to converted tries from Jermaine McGillvary and Gareth Widdop.
The Three Lions added a penalty goal in the second half through Widdop before John Bateman went over. Tonga scored three tries in the last eight minutes through Tevita Pangai Jnr, Siliva Havili and Tui Lolohea. It wasn’t enough though as England hung on for a 20-18 win, progressing to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Final and will meet Australia next Saturday.
Kristian Woolf made two changes to his Tonga side that beat Lebanon last week. Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Peni Terepo came in for Joe Ofahengaue and Ukuma Ta’ai.
Wayne Bennett named an unchanged England team to the one that eased past Papua New Guinea last time out. Sean O’Loughlin captained the side.
The atmosphere in Auckland was electric with hymns being sung by the Tongan support from the start but England silenced the red sea when they scored the opening try in the ninth minute. It went through quick hands to Gareth Widdop who assisted Jermaine McGillvary in the corner. Widdop converted to put his side 6-0 up.
Tonga came close to levelling things up though shortly after the England try. The Mate Ma’a made a fine break down the right wing but Ryan Hall produced a superb try-saving tackle just inches away from his own line.
Bennett’s England side doubled their lead when St George Illawarra Dragons star Widdop took on the Tonga defence and bounced off a challenge to reach over the line. He converted his own try to put England 12-0 ahead.
Josh Hodgson limped off the field midway through the first half and did not return. He was replaced by St Helens ace James Roby.
England and Tonga both had a couple of chances to score in the latter stages of the half but the Three Lions hung on to take a 12-point lead into the break.
HALF TIME: Tonga 0–12 England.
Tonga had a perfect opportunity to get on the shoresheet shortly after the restart. Daniel Tupou had plenty of space out wide but dropped the ball near the line.
In the 49th minute, Widdop extended England’s lead with a penalty goal after Tonga were caught interfering at the play-the-ball, Tonga 0-14 England.
John Bateman all but sealed England’s place in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup when he showed nice feet and shrugged off Will Hopoate to crash over the line. Widdop’s boot took the score to 20-0 in favour of England.
The Mate Ma’a hit back in the 72nd minute with a try from Tevita Pangai Jnr. Sio Siua Taukeiaho converted but England were still 20-6 to the good.
Hooker Siliva Havili scored Tonga’s second with five minutes left to play as he burst through a gap to score from close range. The conversion was on target and the score was 20-12 to England.
Tui Lolohea made it a nervy finish as he supported a Jason Taumalolo break to cross the whitewash for Tonga late on. Taukeiaho added the extras and Tonga only trailed 20-18 with two minutes left.
Andrew Fifita thought he had snatched the victory for the Mate Ma’a in the dying embers but referee Matt Cecchin chalked it off, deeming it to be a knock-on.
England had done just enough in the 72 minutes prior to Tonga’s comeback and progressed to the 2017 Rugby League World Cup final with a marvellous 20-18 win over Tonga in Auckland.
FULL TIME: Tonga 18–20 England.
Tonga – 18
Tries: Pangai Jnr, Havili, Lolohea
Goals: Taukeiaho 3/3
England – 20
Tries: McGillvary, Widdop, Bateman
Goals: Widdop 4/4
Loverugbyleague.com MOM: Gareth Widdop (England)
Tonga: 1. Will Hopoate, 2. Daniel Tupou, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Konrad Hurrell, 5. David Fusitu’a, 6. Tui Lolohea, 7. Ata Hingano, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Siliva Havili, 10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho, 11. Manu Ma’u, 12. Sika Manu (C), 13. Jason Taumalolo.
Interchange: 14. Sione Katoa, 15. Peni Terepo, 16. Tevita Pangai Jnr, 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila.
England: 1. Gareth Widdop, 2. Jermaine McGillvary, 3. Kallum Watkins, 4. John Bateman, 5. Ryan Hall, 6. Kevin Brown, 7. Luke Gale, 8. Chris Hill, 9. Josh Hodgson, 10. James Graham, 11. Sam Burgess, 12. Elliott Whitehead, 13. Sean O’Loughlin (C).
Interchange: 14. Alex Walmsley, 15. Tom Burgess, 16. Ben Currie, 17. James Roby.
Referee – Matt Cecchin