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Tonga end a three-generation wait for Australia's challengers

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4th November, 2019
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The last time Australia were beaten by a new rugby league country, rock and roll was yet to be born.

It was a Monday in fact: 11 June 1951. The game-day paper reported that the French coach would be allowed to sit near the touchline, a break with the custom for the Sydney competition.

“Some of the Frenchmen wept and kissed their teammates after the victory,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported on its front page the next day after the tourists’ 26-15 win in front of 60,160 fans at the SCG.

Over the next month the likes of chain-smoking fullback Puig Aubert and halfback Jean Dop became household names – and, although the term had not yet gained widespread usage, sex symbols – in the rugby league-playing states of Australia.

“It was not mere froth and bubble yesterday – there was plenty of body in this French champagne,” wrote the legendary Tom Goodman on the Tuesday.

“There was enough sparkle to show up the stale beer of Australia’s orthodoxy.

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“So far as Australia is concerned, France has ‘arrived’ in Test football.”

The French lost the second Test 23-11 in Brisbane before returning to the SCG, where they triumphed 35-14 in front of 67,003. I grew up hearing about the exploits of Jacques Merquey and Edouard Ponsinet from my uncle Tom.

I got off school early in 1981 to see the touring Frenchmen at the Wollongong Showground, demanding my French teacher instruct me on how to ask for an autograph.

Back in 1951 it must have seemed from Australia like a whole new world was opening up for rugby league internationally.

But over the next 68 years the United States (touring Australia just two years later), Wales, South Africa, Scotland, Samoa, Russia, Papua New Guinea, Lebanon, Fiji, Ireland and Lebanon would all try to topple the green and gold.

And they all failed.

That’s why it was a highlight of my entire involvement in rugby league – back to before that mid-week tour match in Wollongong – to be present at Eden Park on Saturday night.

Konrad Hurrell

(Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Change in the sport happens at such a glacial speed that – to mix a metaphor – your eyes can glaze over after a while. Rugby league mostly sells the same thing to the same people decade after decade. In most places it has enough trouble servicing its current constituents.

The people in charge – outside the NRL – are run off their feet dealing with limited resources and keeping things ticking over without being able to properly execute anything new.

They need outsiders to do that. Toronto in Super League is a mind-blowing, completely new development for a competition that was starting to look very old and stale.

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And as the above reminiscence illustrates, Tonga winning on Saturday night is our sport’s America’s Cup. The sands have shifted permanently.

To those who suggest the result should have an asterisk or isn’t that big a deal for a variety of reasons, I make three points.

One, International Rugby League has already designated it a full Test.

Two, yes, players can switch countries easily. But what were the qualification rules in 1951? Did they check birth certificates then? Was it citizenship or residency or… no-one knows or remembers, and no-one will remember the qualification rules of 2019 either when they look down the column of results and see Australia losing to Tonga.

Three, of course they are all NRL players. That’s how things work this century. Amateurs don’t beat full-time professionals at the top level. The French beating Australia in 1978 was a bigger upset, but it wasn’t comparable historically because they had been beating Australia regularly since 1951.

Jason Tauamlolo running with Tonga.

(Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Tonga has never beaten Australia, and the countries listed above had all tried and failed since 1951. When NBA players represent other countries against the US, American fans might say, “That’s not an upset – I know that guy”. But the result is significant for international basketball regardless of whether one group of fans know the players or not.

Results may lie, but the lie is soon forgotten and the result stands.

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Tonga could win the World Cup, but Fiji have made the semis every tournament since 2008. They’ll want a say in that. So will New Zealand, Australia and England at a bare minumum.

I’m not sure if uncle Tom was actually there in 1951 and I’m not sure if there is anyone left alive to find that out for me.

But I am now placing on the public record the fact that I was there in 2019. I was there.