Almanac Rugby League – There are upsets, and then there are Upsets!

Saturday’s international rugby league triple-header at Auckland’s Eden Park provided two upsets, one of which was notable while the other was historic. At the end of the day, I’d say that the big winner was rugby league but the biggest winner was Tonga.


Fiji defeated Samoa by 44-18 in the opening game, something of an upset given their respective achievements over the past couple of years. I hoped that this would be a more open, running game than those we saw last weekend and I was not disappointed. Fiji kept pace with the clock to race to a 24-0 lead within the half hour before Samoa got on the board. The Fijians were just too athletic, co-ordinated and powerful for their opponents and were never troubled. They were well served by a powerful forward pack where Villiame Kikau dominated, providing opportunities for the likes of Brandon Wakeham to run riot from halfback. A great team performance! Samoa looked the better squad on paper but couldn’t hold the Bati and were always well behind. Jorge Taufua was probably their best while Junior Paulo waged a one-man battle up front. Their convincing win will give the code a big lift in Fiji while the loss stymies the progress made in Samoa in recent years.


New Zealand defeated Great Britain 12-8 in the second match which never reached any great heights. Great Britain had some good field position but couldn’t convert it into points. Eventually, NZ’s Roger Tuivasa-Sheck created half a chance and then managed a miraculous flick pass offload for Jamayne Isaako to score. The Kiwis hung on and avoided a last-minute horror when Kenny Bromwich forced an error from Jermaine McGillvary right on the line. It might sound harsh, but it was difficult to nominate best players in such an underwhelming struggle. Not unusually in such situations, it was one moment of magic by one of the cream, in this case Tuivasa-Sheck, that made the difference. These two teams meet again next weekend.


Hyperbole abounds in sports commentary but it is simply stating a fact that the Tongan Invitational XIII d Australian Kangaroos 16-12 scoreline in today’s third match is the greatest upset in the code this century, if not in the history of the code. That rugby league was in administrative chaos in Tonga less than a month ago makes the result even more astonishing.


Put simply, the Tongans out-enthused, out-muscled, out-thought and out-played the Australians for a thoroughly deserved, historic win. In my preview, I suggested that the Kau To’a had to be better disciplined and totally committed for the full 80 minutes to have any chance. They did both in spades, at the same time exposing a lack of structure, vision, energy and execution by the Kangaroos. Perhaps the epitome of this came in the last 90 seconds of the game with Australia on the attack within 15 metres of the line with an overlap developing on the right wing. A try would have levelled the scores with the kick to come. Urgent Tongan defensive pressure forced a stray pass and the Tongans came away with the ball to wrap up the game.


It is unfair to single out individual Tongans in this momentous team effort but mention must be made of their formidable forward pack who were simply irresistible, while the experience and cool head of William Hopoate, the brutal enthusiasm of veteran Konrad Hurrell and the wiles of the seasoned Michael Jennings were pivotal to their win. Imagine the reception they will get at home and what honours might be awarded to them. In this deeply religious nation, they may well be awarded their own form of beatification! In more earthly terms, rugby league will gain enormously with Tongan youngsters at home and abroad signing up to emulate their new heroes. And good on them!


The Australians will be hugely disappointed. They got their butts kicked today, not a bad thing once in a while. I thought Boyd Cordner, Payne Haas, Paul Vaughan and Nick Kotric were probably their best. Coach Mal Meninga will give credit where it is due and will be publicly diplomatic about his players. What happens behind closed doors may be different. His players let him down badly today and he won’t have to look too far to get them motivated when they next play. You get a sense that the members of this squad will be immensely relieved that a very long season is finally over.


So the winners today were rugby league in general, Fijian rugby league especially, and Tongan rugby league overwhelmingly.


Three more matches complete the international programme for 2019. On Saturday 9th in Christchurch, Fiji meet Papua New Guinea before the return match between New Zealand and Great Britain. Then on Saturday 16th, Papua New Guinea host Great Britain in Port Moresby.


Finally, let’s salute Matt Gillett, the Broncos, Queensland and Australian back-rower, who has been forced into retirement by chronic shoulder injuries at age 31. A humble and self-effacing man, Gillett was a gritty, powerful, workaholic, understated team player, deceptively quick on his feet, who ran powerfully in attack and defended vigorously on the edge of the ruck. He was the type of player you wanted in your side, especially when the going was rough and tough. He was respected by team-mates and opponents alike. Thanks, Matt, you have been a great plus for the code over more than a decade.



Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.



About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A loyal Queenslander, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. Enjoys travel, coffee and cake, reading, and has been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. One of Footy Almanac's online editors who enjoys the occasional editing opportunity to assist aspiring writers.

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