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Thrown together Australia A side beaten by Tonga as Tupou completes comeback, mixed day for RWC hopefuls

14th July, 2023
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14th July, 2023
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Taniela Tupou took a giant step forward in his bid to play at a second Rugby World Cup, but the road ahead is a steep one – for him and the Wallabies.

Thrown together at the start of the week, Australia A was spat back out by Tonga in Nuku’alofa as Jason Gilmore’s coached side was punished for a dreadful first half and made to pay by superstar backs Charles Piutau and Israel Folau for their sloppy first 40 minutes.

Nothing went right for Australia A, as kicks were kicked out on the full and balls were dropped. The visitors even embarrassingly gave themselves up for being offside as half the team were five-metres offside from Bernard Foley’s drop-kick restart in the 27th minute.

Off the back of a 24-0 lead at half-time, Tonga won 27-21. But the result mattered little for Australia.

What was more significant was whether any of the visitors took their chances, with opportunities scarce to press claims to join Eddie Jones in France.

Taniela Tupou got through 40 minutes in his comeback match from a ruptured Achilles in November. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Naturally, the fact Australia A came within six points indicates that the visitors rallied in the second half told a story.

Harry Wilson picked up where he left off for Queensland, while Issak Fines-Leleiwasa offered some bounce out of halfback that kept the Tongan defence on their heels.

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Lukhan Salakaia-Loto was one of Australia A’s best too, with the second-rower going the 80 minutes and throwing a lovely ball to Josh Flook to complete the visitors’ third try. Brad Wilkin toiled hard, too.

While Jones would have breathed a sigh of relief that Tupou came away unscathed in his first match since going down with a ruptured Achilles at Lansdowne Road in November.

Foley had an up-and-down match.

Given the squad came together on Sunday afternoon, Foley was thrown a short ball by leading a side that had barely ever played alongside one another. But Foley did bring a running game that showed a man confident despite little going his way in the opening half.

While Australia A had very little possession in the first half, nor did they help themselves.

Running into a strong breeze, Foley and Jock Campbell kicked out on the full inside their own half inside the opening 20 minutes.

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Jake Gordon, meanwhile, put a toe in touch when Australia A tried to play some width and later in the first half lost possession at the base of the ruck in the 32nd minute after another good carry from Lachie Swinton.

For 70 minutes, Swinton was one of Australia A’s best as finally the blindside flanker showed something in his carrying. But his late yellow card after being involved in some push and shove was another giant mark against him.

Tupou, who along with Folau Fainga’a and Seru Uru, played 40 minutes, showed his muscle early on with one strong scrum that earned the visitors a penalty. But, on the whole, it was Tonga that won the set-piece battle with Tom Lambert penalised for not scrummaging straight at times.

Tonga raced out to 24-0 lead after 34 minutes, as Piutau ran amok in the first half.

The former All Blacks star, who left for riches in the north years ago, scored in the third minute after Folau freed him up out wide.

Israel Folau played his part in Tonga’s win over Australia A. (Photo by Pita Simpson/Getty Images)

Folau then showed his worth on the defensive side of the ball, hunting down Campbell to force a mistake on the fringes.

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After a high shot from Salakaia-Loto, Tonga kicked for the corner and needed just a couple of phases as Fine Inisi sliced between Uru and Gordon to score.

Australia came close to hitting back in the 15th minute, but Anderson and Tupou were stopped dead in their tracks just as the visitors looked like they would score.

While Foley started to get into the game, some good defence from Tonga kept Australia A out.

Their work off the ball paid off, as Tonga scored another close to the posts in the 25th minute as Solomone Funaki scored from some weak goalline defence.

After Piutau got on the edge of the Australia A defence from a scrum, halfback Sonatane Takulua scored his side’s fourth after a wicked bounce from Inisi’s boot.

Australia A finally found some success on the fringes in the second half, as Toole and Anderson scored following some nice interchange of passes and manipulation in defence from the inside backs.

Flook’s well taken try gave Australia A hope of stealing the match late, but some more mistakes meant the visitors extended their lead out to six points before holding on to claim a momentum-building win before playing Fiji next weekend.

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“We came up against a real quality side in Tonga,” Foley said.

“We knew they were going to be physical and they’ve got some strike weapons in the backline, and we weren’t able to stop them early and they got a roll on and we paid for that.

“But what an incredible occasion it is today. Everyone got their opportunity and was hungry and motivated to make that World Cup squad.”

Meanwhile, the victory for Toutai Kefu’s side was a statement on the eve of the World Cup and showed that the little Pacific Island nation could make a big splash in the ocean later this year.

Tonga is grouped alongside South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania in Pool B.

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