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In defeat, Tonga scored a huge victory for international rugby league

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Editor
21st October, 2018
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If you didn’t get caught up in the hype of the Australia vs Tonga match, then you need to have your pulse checked. Pretty good chance you’re actually dead.

As for the game itself? Hmmm… I guess it played out the way it was supposed to, in a head vs heart sense.

Logic dictated that the Kangaroos would simply have too much class in the clutch, whereas even the most fervent Aussie fan probably hoped for the men in red to overwhelm the favourites with pure fire and brimstone.

Unfortunately, the former was the case.

And to be honest, the efforts to make the latter true probably worked against the underdogs.

The Andrew Fifita-led Sipi Tau was the stuff of legend. Will go down in the history books, right up there with ‘King’ Carlos Spencer in his prime, taking charge of the Haka.

But – with all due respect to a team of blokes whose spirit cannot be questioned – what made the Sipi Tau so spine-tingling wasn’t actually the fellas on the field. It was the 26,214 people in the stands who were going bananas.

‘Sea of red’ doesn’t adequately describe the venue – it was an avalanche. What an incredible atmosphere those fans created; it radiated across the airwaves and had the viewer at home either feeling chills or, again, being forced to check their pulse, lest they actually having ceased to exist.

I thought there had been a mistake when the TV coverage showed up that fewer than 30,000 people were in attendance. Sold out, no question, but it sounded ten times louder than Suncorp Stadium stuffed to the gills for Origin.

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Not for nothing either – not to get too tangled up in it all – but that the Tongan fans joined in to belt out the Aussie anthem before proceedings showed that they’re not just the loudest fans on the planet, they’re also the classiest.

But I wonder whether the best crowd we’ve seen at any footy match this year ended up working against their players.

To say the Tongans were overwhelmed in the first half isn’t quite right, but the experience factor was evident from the get-go.

That Aussie line-up may not have veterans such as Cam Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston running the show anymore – and the likes of Damien Cook and Luke Keary are more green than gold at this stage of their representative careers – but the Kangaroos largely consist of big-name players who have won big games in front of big crowds.

And while Fifita and Jason Taumalolo have no shortage of experience, the majority of Tongan players would have only played matches on par with last night – in terms of atmosphere and occasion – once, maybe twice before.

Most of the Aussies, by contrast, have been through the crucible of Origin or a grand final.

Mal Meninga’s men were certainly respectful of the atmosphere and they knew the noise wasn’t in aid of their cause, but they also knew how to handle it.

By contrast, Tonga didn’t quite manage to harness the power of their support for the full 80.

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Let’s not be disingenuous with regards to the respective spines either. Ata Hingano and Tuimoala Lolohea did themselves proud and are a pair plenty of NRL clubs would be stoked to have as their halves, but Daly Cherry-Evans and Keary are a combination few clubs could afford.

Will Hopoate has had an unfair level of criticism thrown his way over the years – he’s honest and reliable as the day is long – but James Tedesco is the best fullback on Planet Earth at the moment.

And Siliva Havili was picked up by the Raiders at the back end of last year as injury cover. That’s not to be disrespectful to a solid first-grade footy player, but he wouldn’t be in the conversation for the hooker jumper if his allegiance was to Australia.

At the end of the day, the Tongan pack may be the most terrifying in rugby league – phwoar, how good was Tevita Pangai Jr? Please just come home to Newcastle! – but your forwards can only set a platform. You need that bit of finesse to turn mongrel into game-winning points, and Tonga’s spine are more satin than silk.

All of which is to say, in a very long-winded, roundabout fashion (as is my wont) that we need more international rugby league.

There’s talk of a round-robin set of games between Tonga, New Zealand, Fiji and Samoa next year. Hell yes! Tonga’s spine may not be on par with their Aussie counterparts, but as they play together more often – and if they can bottle that incredible support in the stands – they can become greater than the sum of their parts.

If that leads to a boilover in which the Kangaroos lose to a tier-two nation, this proud Aussie will be cheering it on – I daresay I wouldn’t be the only one.

But, for now – if you’ll pardon my cheesiness – the winner last night was international rugby league. That’s down to the Tongan players and, especially, their brilliant, boisterous, big-hearted fans.

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