There were moments yesterday when the ever-impoverished Tongans asked some interesting questions of England's second-string, the overwhelming favourites to land a sixth Churchill Cup title in nine attempts. Unfortunately for the South Seas islanders, none of those moments occurred at scrum-time. All they could do then was attempt to kid the referee that they were better organised then they looked, and as they happened to be in the presence of the best set-piece official in world rugby, they had no chance.
Romain Poite awarded three penalty tries against the Tongan tight forwards, who committed every scrummaging crime in the book – collapsing, standing up, whip-wheeling, slipping the binding – and got away with precisely nothing. The remaining English tries had much to do with Jordan Crane, the Leicester No 8, who claimed one from close range and created the other with an angled pass off his right foot that would have had Glenn Hoddle purring with pleasure. Billy Twelvetrees, his club-mate, was on hand to finish this final scoring move but, by then, the Saxons tight forwards had long since made their decisive point.
Much has been said and written about Matt Stevens' chance of making an early return to the full England squad ahead of this autumn's World Cup in New Zealand, but the Worcester prop Matt Mullan went about his work in an equally impressive fashion. In addition, there was aggression a-plenty from the London Irish hooker David Paice, while Dave Attwood accomplished as much at the line-out as he did at the scrum.
And then there was Mouritz Botha, freshly minted as an Englishman after spending 29 years as a proud South African. Some traditionalists will resent his sudden appearance in a red-rose shirt, but no fair-minded witness could accuse him of short-changing his new country on the commitment front. Some of his tackling was so recklessly full-on he beat the Tongans at their own game. For every rib-rearranging horizontal assault perpetrated by Sione Timani, a better example was provided by the eye-catching Saracens lock.
Stuart Lancaster, the Saxons coach, suggested that a number of the forwards had done enough to merit consideration for the World Cup training squad, which will be named by the England manager Martin Johnson a week today. Botha may yet push for a place, especially if he tears up a few more trees in the Churchill Cup final against Canada this coming weekend.
As for the Tongans, who have the dubious pleasure of opening the World Cup against the All Blacks in Auckland, the scrummaging problems are a major concern. It was not as if they fielded a front row full of nobodies – Tonga Lea'aetoa, Semisi Telefoni and Kisi Pulu featured regularly in the French Top 14 championship last season – and while Soane Tonga'uiha of Northampton and Taufa'ao Filise of Cardiff Blues will probably be the first-choice props when things get serious in September, the islanders patently have issues to address.
When they were able to escape their set-piece purgatory, they played some striking stuff: the centre Suka Hufanga and the No 8 Pasuka Mapakaitolo contributed strongly, as did the scrum-half Soane Havea. Rugby is a tough old game to play in reverse gear, though, and if you cannot win your own ball, it is fiendishly difficult to go anywhere but backwards.
Scorers: England Saxons: Tries penalties 3, Crane, Twelvetrees; Conversions Clegg 5; Penalties Clegg 2. Tonga: Tries Timani, Koloamatangi; Conversions K Morath 2.
England Saxons: A Goode (Saracens); C Sharples (Gloucester), H Trinder (Gloucester), W Twelvetrees (Leicester), T Ojo (London Irish); R Clegg (Harlequins), P Hodgson (London Irish); M Mullan (Worcester), D Paice (London Irish), M Stevens (Saracens), M Botha (Saracens), D Attwood (Bath), J Gaskell (Sale), T Johnson (Exeter), J Crane (Leicester, capt). Replacements: M Brown (Harlequins) for Goode 55; J Gray (Harlequins) for Paice 55; J Turner-Hall (Harlequins) for Trinder 60; M Young (Leicester) for Hodgson 67; K Brookes (Leicester) for Mullan 67; G Kitchener (Leicester) for Gaskell 72; J Gibson (London Irish) for Johnson 75.
Tonga: E Paea; V Iongi, S Hufanga, S Fonua, V Helu; K Morath, D Morath; T Lea'aetoa, S Telefoni, K Pulu (capt), S Timani, E Kauhenga, J Afu, P Koloamatangi, P Mapakaitolo. Replacements: O Fainga'anuku for Lea'aetoa 56; S Havea for D Morath 56; A Halangahu for Telefoni 59; Lea'aetoa for Mapakaitolo 63-76.
Referee: R Poite (France).Reuse content