Gutsy Wales made heavy favourites Tonga work for their 32-6 World Cup group D victory at St Helens.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf was back in town for an encore at the club ground he enjoyed unprecedented success, having recorded a hat-trick of Super League triumphs.
But his side didn’t have it all their own way against Wales, who led until the 37th minute to defy the pre-match predictions.
Such was the anticipated dominance of the Tongans, the bookies weren’t even accepting bets to back Woolf’s side with Wales out at 33/1.
The early moments suggested they might have been right, as Wales were twice forced to drop out as they soaked up some early pressure.
But they grew in to the game and having worked up to the other end for the first time, they ought to have scored when Dalton Grant inexplicably didn’t pass to impressive winger Kyle Evans for a walk-in at the corner, instead going himself and being held up over the line.
Though that was a missed opportunity, John Kear’s side would take the lead on 16 minutes with a deadly counter attack. Konrad Hurrell spilled the ball in a tackle just shy of half-way, and Josh Ralph popped a pass up for rugby union convert Evans to stride home from 40 metres.
Evans, who switched to rugby league with Wakefield earlier this year, impressed at both ends of the pitch, registering an eye-watering hit on St Helens favourite Hurrell early in the second half.
He couldn’t do anything to prevent Tonga’s opening try on 21 minutes. Tui Lolohea’s high kick was spilled by Caleb Aekins, and from the extra set, Tonga created an overlap for Daniel Tupou in the left corner to cut Wales’ lead to 6-4.
That didn’t lead to the floodgates opening as many envisaged. In fact, Matty Fozard went close for Wales before Sione Katoa spilled a try chance 20 metres out at the other end.
But two tries in the last three minutes of the first half would take the wind out of Wales’ sails.
Hooker Connor Davies was adjudged to have knocked on in midfield, which prompted an unsuccessful captain’s challenge as he felt he had recovered the ball in the tackle before it hit the ground.
From that field position, big Gold Coast Titans second-rower David Fifita targeted half-back Ollie Olds in the line and had enough power to take him over.
Cruelly, a third Tonga try would follow before the break. History making referee Kasey Badger, who became the first female referee of a men’s World Cup match, awarded a six-again to reset the tackle count and that helped Tonga get up field.
Once again they targeted the half-backs in Wales’ defensively line, this time Keaon Koloamatangi getting on the outside of Josh Ralph to touch down.
The 16-6 half-time score perhaps didn’t reflect the Welsh effort in that first half, and their determined defensive effort continued in to the second half.
Evans’ big hit on Hurrell halted one Tonga attack, though the toll of Wales’ effort was shown up by Tesi Niu wriggling through some tired tackling for the second half’s first score seven minutes in for 22-6.
Wales spent the rest of the match camped on their own line and it was to their credit that they only conceded a further two tries.
Both of those went to hat-trick hero Tupou, who was simply the beneficiary of a left wing overlap on 59 and 71 minutes.
In between those two, there was very nearly a moment of magic as an acrobatic play close to the right touchline, hooking the ball back between his legs on a kick chase looked to have set up a try for Lolohea, but video replays shown the ball had just touched the line before being picked up.
The win for Tonga follows their opening victory over Papua New Guinea, and they face Cook Islands in Middlesbrough on Sunday, while Wales head to Doncaster to face the Kumuls on Monday night.
Tonga: Niu, Tupou, Talakai, Hurrell, Katoa, Amone, Lolohea, Fonua-Blake, Luke, Fotuaika, Kaufusi, Koloamatangi, Taukeiaho. Subs: Koula, Tatola, Fifita, Murdoch-Masila.
Tries: Tupou 3, Fifita, Koloamatangi, Niu. Goals: Lolohea 3, Talakai.
Wales: Aekins, K Evans, Grant, Kear, Williams, O Olds, Ralph, Walker, Fozard, Bennion, Butler, Antrobus, Burke. Subs: Fleming, Cu Davies, Co Davies, Hopkins.
Tries: Evans. Goals: Fozard.