Tonga’s history-making touring team, full of NRL talent, have given England a scare in the first of three rugby league Tests before falling to a valiant 22-18 defeat in St Helens.
Kristian Woolf’s tourists, the first tier-two rugby league side to play a full series in Britain, were still forging forward in the dying minutes on Sunday as they tried to record a landmark victory.
A late try from Manly’s Tolutau Koula had set up a grandstand finish but England, who’d pulled clear with two second-half tries from star Catalans Dragons winger Tom Johnstone, held out for the four-point win.
But at the ground where Woolf guided St Helens to Super League glory during a triumphant spell, the Dolphins assistant coach was left “proud” of his Pacific islanders’ unstinting efforts.
“It was close but not quite close enough,” he shrugged. “I’m proud of our effort. I thought we showed we’re here to play and we’re here to try to win the series. Our guys are going to get a lot of confidence out of that.
“We’re a very new team and we’ve plenty of blokes who haven’t played for six or seven weeks and they’re only going to get better. We’ll learn from that and be better for the next two matches.”
Jack Welsby, installed as England’s youngest ever captain at 22, was a relieved man after the victory which had been hard-fought after the Tongans had gone in at halftime all square at 12-12.
Tonga had given away an early try after a brilliant driving run from debutant Mikey Lewis had eventually led to Toby King going over buts West Tigers centre Starford To’a soon went over in the right corner to power them back into the game.
In the 24th minute, Huddersfield standoff Tuimoala Lolohea, a rare English-based player in the visitors’ squad, then threaded a lovely grubber in behind the home defence which Tyson Frizell latched on to score on his Tonga debut.
It was a great moment for Newcastle’s 32-year-old Frizell, Australian-born with a Welsh father and a Tongan mother, who reckoned it was a “surreal” experience to be representing a third nation at rugby league.
He’d previously won the World Cup in 2017 with the Kangaroos and had also played for Wales in the 2013 event.
“It’s strange, being at the back end of my career but also one of the new guys,” he said.
After the brilliant Lewis then weaved inside, brushing off two tackles to score, the teams were level at the break, but England turned the screw after the break with a marvellous cut-out pass from Welsby putting Johnson in on 55 minutes and the winger then also cashing in on a Will Penisini fumble to score an intercept try.
It looked to have comfortably sealed England’s win only for the Tongans to roar back, first holding up Tom Burgess on their own try line before powering down the other end for Koula to go over spectacularly in the left hand corner.
The series next moves to Huddersfield on 28 October, before concluding in Leeds the following weekend, with Woolf insistent his side are still in with a chance of a famous series triumph.