England are through to their first Rugby League World Cup final in 22 years after edging past Tonga 20-18 in a gripping Auckland encounter.
A try and four goals to fullback Gareth Widdop was just enough to power past the fast finishing Polynesian country in a sold-out semi-final at Mt Smart Stadium. England will face world champions Australia in the final next Saturday as they try to end the nation’s 45-year World Cup drought.
But controversy reigned right on full-time as Tongan prop Andrew Fifita was denied a potential match-winning try as he lunged for the line. Referee Matt Cecchin did not go to the video referee and England escaped.
England coach Wayne Bennett denied he was nervous despite Tonga almost stealing victory at the death.
“It was a quality game of football, they had some chances,” he said.
“We keep turning up in defence, which was great. At the end of the day our defence won us the game. We had a tough job here. They’re a quality football team. You look across their team, except two or three players, they’re all NRL players. We had our hands full.”
Bennett did not believe video referee should have gone upstairs to check the final call on Fifita’s carry.
“It wasn’t a try because the ball was stripped off him,” he said. “It was loose carry, that’s what it comes under the category of.”
The match started amid a sea of noise and red colour. Every Tongan charge with the ball was supported by raucous cheers from most of the 30,000-strong crowd.
Though it was England who fashioned a dangerous early opening - a Jermaine McGillvary flick offload intercepted by Michael Jennings after just three minutes.
Six minutes later James Graham brilliantly put Widdop through a huge hole in the middle of the field, but Widdop was cut down by Tongan fullback Will Hopoate.
Then England forced another set of six with a smart kick to the corner. On the back of the scrum they swept to the left and Widdop’s cut-out pass found McGillvary who drew first blood and touched down out wide.
Widdop added the extras to give England an early 6-0 lead. The try settled their nerves and for a time quietened the pro-Tongan venue. Graham was felled soon after from a late hit from Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
In the 15th minute the Tongan team burst into life when Tui Lolohea ran the ball on the last tackle. The half-back beat a handful of defenders and spread the ball wide, but Jennings was penalized for passing the ball off the ground centimetres from the line, and a vital try went begging.
England were put on notice though and Josh Hodgson was the next player to go down after copping some typical Polynesian physicality. Hodgson played on and in the next tackle Elliot Whitehead broke the line and slipped a pass to the impressive Widdop, who wriggled free to score.
The fullback made it 12-0 and England had weathered the early storm. Tonga attempted to get a foothold back into game but were met by some stiff English defence.
On 24 minutes the Mate Ma’a Tonga received a penalty on their opponent’s 20-metre line and Hodgson was down again receiving treatment. The Canberra hooker could not continue and was replaced by James Roby.
A stray offload from Manu Ma’u ended any danger to the England try-line. Tonga’s constant ball movement was stretching their opponent’s defence, but they couldn’t find the final killer pass needed to get over the line.
England were clinical and smart, using superior field position to build their attacks. Indiscipline from the Mate Ma’a around the ruck proved costly.
With four minutes left in the half a knock on from Hopoate gave England the ball right on the Tongan line again. But Wayne Bennett’s side couldn’t find a way through and it stayed at 12-0 at the break.
Tonga were 16-2 behind against New Zealand at half-time earlier in the tournament, but managed to roar back and famously win 28-22 to shock the rugby league world to its core.
However, the miracle comeback, the giant upset, was agonisingly close but not to be for the tiny Pacific nation this time round. Back-to-back penalties at the start of the second half gave Tonga an excellent chance but Daniel Tupou knocked on with the try-line open to save England’s bacon.
The match got into a grind with each team focused on set completion and getting to their kicks. On 49 minutes when Lolohea was penalized for a ball steal, England went for goal and Widdop crucially made it 14-0.
A desperate Tonga upped the ante but still England’s defence held its nerve. On 63 minutes Jennings made a dangerous break down the left flank but his offload was wild and sailed into touch. It was just not the Mate Ma’a’s night.
With 13 minutes left in the match John Bateman brushed past two defenders on the right edge to score England’s third try. The Tongans appeared done and dusted, but it was merely a mirage.
On 73 minutes Tevita Pangai Jr crashed over to finally get Tonga on the scoreboard. Time was not on their side, yet then with just four minutes left in the game Siliva Havill dramatically dived through in a frantic finish.
Less than a minute later Lolohea also scored after Jason Taumalolo’s bustling break through the middle. The stadium erupted for a third Tonga try in just three minutes and the lead was cut to only two points.
The memory of England’s nightmare exit in the World Cup semi-finals four years ago, with just six seconds left at the hands of New Zealand at Wembley, flooded back. And with less than 20 seconds to go Fifita charged to the line seemingly hell-bent on scoring, but he lost the ball merely metres from a magical match-winner.
Tongan coach Kristian Woolf was stunned the video referee wasn’t used.
“I don’t know if it’s a try or not because I haven’t seen it again,” he said,
“I don’t know if we were robbed. I can’t believe we don’t look at it. The game’s on the line. I thought for very, very long periods we were on top in this game. We just didn’t quite get there tonight. England deserve some credit there, they defended extremely well there at times.”
Despite regaining the ball and scoring, it was ruled as a loose carry and Fifita’s try was waved off. England had survived by the mere skin of their teeth. Now Bennett’s boys have the arduous ask of beating an Australian side that is undefeated in this World Cup so far and has not lost a match in two years.
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