Tonga survive scare to get World Cup campaign off to winning start

Tonga survive scare to get World Cup campaign off to winning start

Tonga survived a major scare from Papua New Guinea to start their World Cup campaign with a thrilling 24-18 win at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium.

Kristian Woolf’s world number two ranked team are highly fancied after reaching the semi-finals in 2017, but they needed a try three minutes from the end by South Sydney forward Keaon Koloamatangi to see off the brave challenge of the Kumuls.

After a series of one-sided contests over the weekend, organisers will be thrilled with the penultimate fixture of round one which thoroughly entertained the 10,409 crowd.

The underdogs took an early lead through Leeds second rower Rhyse Martin, who went through a gap in the Tonga defence for the opening try, which he converted.

Dan Russell, playing on the left wing as a late replacement for Melbourne’s Xavier Coates, went close to doubling the lead before having a try ruled out for a foot in touch and the misses began to look costly as Tonga started to assert their authority.

Wolf’s men drew level through centre Will Penisini and appeared to take a stranglehold on the game with two tries in two minutes just before the break through forward Moeaki Fotuaika and teenage half-back Isaiya Katoa.

Katoa, who has yet to play a game in the NRL but showed enough promise to be signed up by Wayne Bennett for new club Dolphins in 2023, kicked a third conversion to make it 18-6 at half-time.

Tonga v Papua New Guinea – Rugby League World Cup – Group D – Totally Wicked Stadium
Keaon Koloamatangi scores the match-winning try for Tonga (Martin Rickett/PA)

The Kumuls struck within a minute of the re-start when hooker Edwin Ipape demonstrated his strength by wriggling free from a string of attempted tackles to put his Leigh team-mate Lachlan Lam over for their second try.

Martin’s second goal cut the deficit to six points and Papua New Guinea thought they had scored again when Rodrick Tai squeezed in at the corner, only to have the try contentiously disallowed by video referee Ben Thaler.

However, the Kumuls’ persistence paid off 13 minutes from the end when full-back Alex Johnston fashioned a try from a scrum for Russell and Martin’s touchline conversion levelled the scores.

Katoa had a chance to win it with a 40-metre penalty goal but he was off target for the first time in the match and it was left to Koloamatangi to come up with the decisive score after his side kept the ball alive on the last tackle.