Tonga denied in controversial finale as England hold out to reach Rugby League World Cup final
Dramatic finale sees England concede three late tries before Tonga have last-gasp penalty shout denied when Fifita has the ball knocked from his hands
England conceded three tries in the last eight minutes but held on to beat Tonga 20-18 in the second semi-final of the Rugby League World Cup to join defending champions Australia in the final.
Leading 20-0 in the 72nd minute, England appeared to be coasting towards their first World Cup final in 22 years.
But they suddenly found themselves under siege as Tonga scored late tries though Tevita Pangai Junior, Siliva Havili and Tuimoala Lolohea to draw within two points with less than two minutes remaining.
Tonga then had a chance to win when Andrew Fifita, a superstar of Australia’s National Rugby League, made a break less than a minute from the finish.
With the line open, Fifita had the ball struck from his grasp by England’s Elliott Whitehead, and the final whistle sounded amid a clamour of protests from the Tonga players, who insisted they were due at least a penalty. Fifita had also recovered and grounded the ball and claimed the winning try.
When the referee refused their demands, the Tonga players collapsed to the ground in despair where they were comforted by their England opponents, as the huge contingent of Tonga fans at the match burst spontaneously into a Tongan hymn which swelled around the ground.
Few spectacles in the history of the Rugby League World Cup matched Saturday’s contentious finish.
“It’s a tough loss to take,” Tonga captain Sika Manu said. “The boys have played well the whole tournament and to take it to the wire like that, I’m so proud to be part of this group.
“Our motto has been ‘die for Tonga’ and throughout the tournament we’ve played for the full 80 minutes. We never give up and we showed that again today.”
Representing a nation of just over 100,000, Tonga drew on massive support among the Tongan community of New Zealand, attracting joyous, capacity crowds of red-clad, flag-waving fans.
On Saturday, the nation’s monarch, King Tupou VI, was among a record crowd of more than 30,000 fans – almost all Tongan – who watched the semi-final at Auckland’s Mount Smart stadium.
Though unbeaten at the tournament until Saturday, Tonga were unable to rise again to the challenge of playing a first tier nation, as polished England made the final as an individual nation for the first time since 1995.
Full-back Gareth Widdop was the star, scoring a try, providing two assists and kicking four goals from four attempts.
Widdop made the break that led to winger Jermaine McGillvary’s opening try in the 10th minute then scored himself six minutes later, giving England a 12-0 lead at half-time.
Widdop slotted a 49th-minute penalty and provided the last pass in a try to John Bateman which, with Widdop’s conversion, made the lead 20-0.
Tonga looked outmatched until they launched their stunning late offensive.
“It’s been a long time waiting to make a World Cup final,” Widdop said. “It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played in.
“The Tonga supporters have been fantastic. They turned up tonight and showed their passion and their team kept fighting to the end.”