COMMENT by Steve Ricketts. Former Chief Rugby League writer, The Courier-Mail.
I never thought I would cheer so loudly for Australia to beat a ‘second tier’ rugby league country.
But, there was no way I wanted an upset result. And this is coming from a man who has always championed the international game, and, dare I say it, occasionally willed victory over the Australians, ‘for the sake of Test football’.
So, why was I so keen for an Aussie victory over Tonga at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday?
For a start, the Kangaroo brand is to rugby league what the All Blacks are to rugby union. An ‘upstart’ nation like Tonga, who had boasted of more pride in their jersey than the ‘Roos, has to earn their stripes before beating arguably the best rugby team, of either code.
But, boy, they made Australia work for their 34-16 victory.
I think the ‘Roos would have won, no matter what. But the Australians were aided by the fact the Tongans turned over possession on the first tackle, three times, and also lost their halfback, Ata Hingano (shoulder) in the 26th minute, after he had been a passenger for 10 minutes.
There were times when the Tongan power game, and off-loading skills, threatened to overwhelm Australia, given the Pacific nation dominated possession. (I acknowledge that Tonga’s off-loading was error prone, but it was refreshing to see a team try to keep the ball alive).
Our forwards, who were lambasted for their efforts in the loss to New Zealand the previous week, held their ground. Josh McGuire, who has Samoan blood, was outstanding, as was Jordan McLean, despite one loose carry.
Australian fullback, James Tedesco was a deserved man-of-the-match, and he is one of the magic men we can turn to at crucial times.
Valentine Holmes is another, and Latrell Mitchell, on his day. But Mitchell was quiet against the Tongans.
I don’t believe Damien Cook and Daly Cherry-Evans are our long term hooker and halfback options. And surely we have middle forwards with more mongrel than Aaron Woods and David Klemmer.
Tonga’s Tevita Pangai Jnr showed some mongrel when he kicked Holmes in the head, as Holmes scored a try, and referee, Bernard Sutton was right to award an ‘eight point try’.
Pangai Jnr protested that he could not pull out, but the ‘kick’ appeared a deliberate motion, thankfully delivered with little force.
As for the refereeing. If the international game wants to be taken seriously, on every front, it has to have neutral referees. If that means special coaching for whistle blowers in different countries, so be it.
They can’t do worse than some of our NRL referees, who are paranoid about making a call. Oldham based English referee, Robert Hicks, did a magnificent job in the Challenge Cup and Super League finals in England, as the sole man in the middle, allowing play to flow at every opportunity.
NRL referees have the attitude that if play is a bit scrappy, there must have been a knock-on, so they pull up play, even though there is no conclusive evidence of a knock-on. Give the benefit of the doubt to the attack, for heaven’s sake.
The atmosphere at Mt Smart was sensational, with the pro-Tonga crowd good natured, even to the extent of singing along with our national anthem, something one or two Australian players didn’t do. But that’s another story.
At times it felt like a Polynesian church service, rather than a football match.
On Radio 2KY on Saturday, the Australian Rugby League’s Senior Manager of International Strategy, Frank Puletua (a former Samoan international) said Polynesians now make up 50 percent of the NRL playing ranks.
On one hand, that is not a bad thing, considering the explosive talents of the Polynesians, and their ability to off-load the ball.
On the other hand, it says something about our junior pathways. Are diminutive or slender players like Allan Langer, Darren Lockyer, Robbie O’Davis or Preston Campbell being knocked out of the game before their time, by the bigger lads of Polynesian origin?
I think we know the answer to that, and weight/age divisions are the way to go.
And if the Polynesian numbers continue to grow, how can the Australian Rugby League promote State of Origin as the Best of the Best, especially if those Australian born and raised Polynesian players declare they only want to play for their ‘heritage country’, rather than Australia?
One fan in the Mt Smart crowd displayed the banner: Born in Australia, but I will die for Tonga.
FOOTNOTE: I covered the 2000 World Cup in the northern hemisphere, for News Ltd, but didn’t get to see Tonga play, because they were based in France, and I did not travel outside England, Wales and Scotland.
Tonga first played in a World Cup in 1995, in Britain, when they were beaten by New Zealand 25-24 at Warrington and drew 28-28 with Papua New Guinea at Hull. Solomon Haumono was their wrecking ball on that trip.
In 2000, Tonga belted South Africa 66-18 in Paris, but went down 28-8 to host nation, France in Carcassonne, and also lost to the Bob Bennett coached Papua New Guinea side, 30-22 at St Esteve (Bob is younger brother of Broncos’ super coach, Wayne Bennett).
The Tongan side, coached by Queenslander, Murray Hurst, included the likes of Canberra Raiders’ star, Brent Kite; Andrew Lomu (Sydney Roosters), Willie Mason (Canterbury-Bankstown) and captain, Martin Masella (Wakefield Trinity). Kite, (who coached Tweed Coast Raiders to a Northern Rivers premiership this year) and Mason, went on to represent Australia.
In that 2000 tournament, I covered three matches involving Pacific Island Nations – a quarter final at Vicarage Road, Watford when Australia won 66-10; and two pool matches involving Fiji, the first at Gateshead, when Australia won 66-8, and the second at Headingley, Leeds, when England won 66-10.
By the way. The first time our rugby union Wallabies played Tonga was 1973. The Wallabies won the First Test 30-12 in Sydney, but lost the return clash 16-11 at Brisbane’s Ballymore. They took a long while to live that one down.
And finally. It was great to hear Australian Rugby League Commission chair, Peter Beattie say that strengthening the international game was as much about the northern hemisphere, as the Pacific. How for instance, did we allow the once proud league nation, France, to descend to the extent it is no longer guaranteed a ‘Tier One’ spot.
When I raised the French dilemma with International Federation boss, John Grant several months back, he seemed shocked that I would urge him not to forget France.
Unfortunately, the French don’t seem to be able to look after themselves, and it seems they have been forgotten, outside the fact they have clubs playing in England – Catalan Dragons in Super League and Toulouse Olympic in the Championship.
Photo: The King of Tonga displays his badges before the 1995 World Cup match against PNG at The Boulevard, Hull. (Picture, Andrew Varley, England. Copyright, Varley Picture Agencies).