Almanac Rugby League – Australia v Tonga: and the winner is…rugby league!

The scoreline was one thing, but what this match meant to Tonga, its players and its fans was more important. Finally, a chance for the second tier nation to play against the No. 1 ranked team in the world. No wonder they came in their thousands from here, there and everywhere. A red sea of over 26,000 singing, cheering, flag-waving Mate Ma’a fanatics took over Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland to let the rugby league world know that they deserve to be recognised at the highest level. They rocked! If there were a few green and gold supporters in the national colours among it all, I didn’t see them.


Respect was a word thrown around a lot before and after the game. The Tongans, players and fans, want respect for the standard of their game but know that it must be earned. Their performance on and off the field did that. Equally, they showed respect, cheering the Australian players, many in the crowd joining in the singing of both national anthems (as did a few Tongan players), and maintaining their enthusiasm even where they knew the game was gone. I think they have won more than enough respect, both last year in the World Cup and in this performance, to now be worthy of first tier status.


The Australians were on a hiding to nothing in this match – inept losers last week to the Kiwis, playing in a stadium where 99% of the support was for the opposition and with the passion, pride and power of the Pacific to pacify. Cometh the moment…and cometh they did to consign last week’s performance to distant memory.


The first half looked like a clash between a slick, professional team and an exuberant, passionate collection of talented individuals. While the Kangaroos clicked quickly and raced in two converted tries in ten minutes, the Mate Ma’a fumbled their way around with a distinct lack of cohesion. A slick pass to put Pangai Jnr over stemmed the flow momentarily before Holmes and Trbojevic T blew it out to 24-6. Tupou got one back but a last minute Holmes effort made it 30-10 at the break. Up front, the Tongans were individually stronger but the Australians were more savvy in their lines and ball movement – a draw between the packs – but the Green and Gold were a class above out wide, creating cavernous gaps all too easily.


The Tongan domination after the restart lasted a full 10 minutes where the Australians conceded several line drop-outs and a few penalties as they strived to hold out the red surge. But Tonga came out this elongated period of possession with only one converted try to show for it when they needed at least two. Credit to the Australian defence during this period. Then the Kangaroos ground their way back into the game, slowed the pace, secured a greater share of possession and dominated field position. A Tedesco angled run and try with fifteen minutes remaining cemented the win. The Tongans refused to give it away and fought to the end but could not make further inroads into the deficit.


What a difference a week makes. The Australian pack held its own against a physically stronger pack and, as mentioned above, played well as a unit. Cordner was a standout. This gave both Cherry-Evans and Keary the time and space they were not afforded last week. Although their kicking game was off early on, they improved and consolidated better field position at a crucial time in the middle of the second half. Trbojevic T, Holmes, Gagai and Tedesco were creative and energetic, the latter probably a deserved man-of-the-match. What surprised me was that a lot of the attack went down the Trbojevic/Gagai edge – and to good effect. By contrast, the damaging Mitchell was primarily a feeder to the whippet Holmes (a winger in the style of the 50s and 60s) rather than a battering ram as he was last week.


Tonga was best served by captain Sika Manu, a dynamic leader from the front, Siosiua Taukeiaho, Tevita Pangai Jnr (although he concedes some silly penalties) and Jason Taumalolo up front. The loss of Hingano after half an hour was a blow but Lolohea, Kata, Tupou and Fonua-Blake all caused the Australian defence problems at times. If the Tongans can play more matches together, they will become a force to be reckoned with.


To be fair, this wasn’t the flashiest game of the year (too many errors and too disjointed at times) but it was among the most important for the future of the game at international level. The Tongans can walk tall, the Australians can be happy with a win in challenging circumstances, and rugby league can say that its southern hemisphere season ended on a very positive note.



Writing isn’t always easy, even if the topic is one you love. Sometimes you need a hand to make sure it says what you want to and how you want to for your audience. Ian Hauser provides an editing service to assist with these challenges. You can check out his website here.


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.


  1. I successfully visualised the sea of red and white as Swans fans – for a few moments anyway! That passion was tangible, even from the television screen, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such joy and celebration from a sporting team’s supporters. Even with the score double theirs, they still celebrated, sang their songs, and waved their flags, all the while not seeming to care whether they won or not. Great spectacle.

  2. Jan, I forgot to mention that, given the comparatively modest resources of Tongan rugby league and its capacity to pay its players, the Australians reportedly took an 85% pay cut for this match as a mark of respect to their opposition. I know they’re all on huge club contracts and so can afford to do so, but I still think it was a most commendable stance to take.

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