A ruthlessly efficient Australian team have beaten Mate Ma’a Tonga 34-16 in tonight’s historic rugby league clash in Auckland, making the Kingdom pay for a series of defensive errors.
The Kangaroos opened the scoring in the sixth minute, in front of a vocal sold out crowd of 26,214 predominantly Tongan fans, when Daly Cherry-Evans intercepted a stray pass and sprinted almost 40 metres to the tryline.
Tom Trbojevic’s try made it 12-0 in as many minutes, following another missed tackle from halfback Ata Hingano on James Tedesco but the halfback redeemed himself a few minutes later, putting Tevita Pangai Junior into a gaping hole to score Mate Ma’a Tonga’s first try, to the delight of the sold out crowd.
The joy didn’t last long as Valentine Holmes stepped inside four Tongan defenders on his way to the tryline to make it 18-6 before Trbojevic scored his second in the 29th minute, after Daly Cherry Evans had escaped the tackle of a flying Sione Katoa to leave Mate Ma’a Tonga’s left edge exposed.
Spurred on by their vocal supporters, Tonga struck back six minutes before the break as the Kangaroos’ rushing defence was caught out. One-test Australian winger Daniel Tupou finished in the left-hand corner against his former side. But their hard work was undone as Valentine Holmes scored again on the stroke of half-time to give the Kangaroos a commanding 30-10 lead at the interval.
The final 40 minutes proved a much tighter affair, with both sides finding it hard to breach the defensive line.
Needing to be the next team to score, Tongan centre Solomone Kate finally breached the green and gold defence after a series of repeat sets, stepping inside Luke Keary and Australian captain Boyd Cordner to cut the deficit to 14 points with half an hour remaining.
With the Tongan players and supporters still sensing an opening, Kangaroos fullback James Tedesco sliced through the Tongan line to put the result beyond doubt with 17 minutes remaining.
Boyd Cordner said the world champions had to withstand a huge amount of pressure in the second spell.
“Tonga executed really well in that second half,” he said.
“It felt like a bit of the first half last week against the New Zealand team but couldn’t be prouder of the boys and the way we kept turning up.
“I don’t think we touched the ball for about 12 minutes, 14 minutes there so I think we got the ball back and it was only a couple of sets until we scored again and it was a really good response.”
Tongan coach Kristian Woolf said a poor first half proved costly.
“Some of the errors were certainly ones that we just pushed and we complicated that with a few ill-disciplined penalties and certainly put ourselves under pressure as well as just some of those carry-into-contact type errors as well,” he said.
“We certainly put the pressure on ourselves and I guess that first half in particular was a little bit of a lesson for us in terms of what standards you need to be at and what standards you need to be at in terms of discipline.
“And to Australia’s credit I don’t think they made an error in that period and they certainly played some footy as well.”
Despite defeat on the scoreboard, the sea of Tongan supporters remained vocal during the game and long after the full-time siren sounded, ready to do it all again when Mate Ma’a Tonga take on the Kiwis in June.