Great Britain lose to Tonga in tour opener
Great Britain received a rude awakening on their return to international rugby league when they were beaten 14-6 in their opening tour match by a Tonga Invitational XIII in Hamilton.
After being mothballed for 12 years, the Lions returned with high hopes for their tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea but instead they became the latest victims of the rise of Tonga.
Although a legal dispute between the old governing body and the International Rugby League meant the hosts were forced to play under an Invitational banner, the game was given full Test-match status and the near full-strength Tongans showed their brilliant 2017 World Cup exploits were no fluke.
Kristian Woolf’s men beat the Kiwis on their way to the last four two years ago before pushing England all the way in a dramatic semi-final.
And their display in their first meeting with Great Britain proved beyond doubt they are worthy of tier one status.
Woolf was forced into making a late change, drafting in teenage full-back Tesi Niu in place of an injured Ata Hingano, but he went on to play a starring role in the victory while the surprise presence of Leeds centre Konrad Hurrell added yet more physicality to their team.
Britain lost in-form prop Luke Thompson after only 12 minutes and, in a torrid opening, were grateful for handling errors by Andrew Fifita and David Fusitu’a in promising attacking positions as they struggled to get a foothold in the game.
They looked to have withstood the pressure when centre Michael Jennings opened the scoring after 29 minutes and Sio Siua Taukeiaho converted his try.
Hull-bound second rower Manu Ma’u then lost control of the ball as he went for the line and Britain would have been delighted to turn around only 6-0 adrift after being on the back foot for most of a torrid first half.
However, Tonga struck again when they kept the ball alive after the hooter had sounded in stunning fashion with 16 pairs of hands involved before substitute Sione Katoa won the race to touch down a kick for a second try.
Taukeiaho’s second conversion made it 12-0 and he put three scores between the teams with a penalty after 63 minutes when Niu was taken out off the ball by Alex Walmsley.
Tonga were understandably unable to maintain their relentless pressure of the first half but Britain lacked the creativity to turn their increased possession into points.
They suffered a blow when Oliver Gildart, the only specialist centre in the squad, went off with a shoulder injury but John Bateman forced his way over for a try in the 70th minute and Gareth Widdop’s conversion cut the deficit to eight points.
But it was too little, too late for Wayne Bennett’s men, who must now pick themselves up for two Tests against New Zealand.