27 Oct 2019

Sport: Tonga XIII hail defensive effort in win over Great Britain

4:01 am on 27 October 2019

It wasn't always pretty but the Tongan Invitational XIII found plenty of beauty in their defensive showing against Great Britain last night.

The Kingdom prevailed 14-6 in Hamilton in a clinical, committed 80 minute performance that was built on a new-found defensive steel.

Konrad Hurrell tackles Lachlan Coote.

Konrad Hurrell tackles Lachlan Coote. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Coach Kristian Woolf said they while they were guilty of some sloppy errors on attack their commitment, physicality and execution on defence laid the platform for an outstanding win.

"Our defence for 80 minutes was really really good and they found one try really late in the game after a ton of possession," he said.

"We put ourselves under pressure at different times and probably need to be a little more disciplined with the ball and a little bit smarter with the ball at different times but when you want to defend like that you give yourself a chance and that's exactly what we did and...I couldn't be prouder of the effort.

"Footy's a tough game, it's about wanting to turn up and put in effort and play tough and that's exactly what our blokes did."

Co-captain Sio Siua Taukeiao said it was one of the best performances he's been involved with representing Tonga.

"It's up there together with the Kiwis game during the World Cup but I thought we had a good mindset," said the NRL Premiership winner.

"We set up our D pretty well in that first half - gave away a few penalties, errors but I thought we showed a bit of character, a bit of faith in our D which held us in the game so pretty proud of the boys but now we've got to step it up if we want to beat Australia."

The Tongal Invitational XIII celebrate their win.

The Tongal Invitational XIII celebrate their win. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The game remained scoreless for the first 30 minutes until Tonga pounced on a Lions knock-on to cross for the opening try before scoring their second after the half-time siren had sounded, with the ball passing through 17 pairs of Tongan hands en route to the tryline.

Kristian Woolf said they were able to capitalise on their opportunities in key moments.

"Neither of our tries in the first half came off any set play or anything pretty but what they showed is we were willing to compete and probably compete a little bit harder than the opposition and that's how you find those types of tries," he said.

"If you want to compete hard and you want to defend well then you give yourself a real chance."

Despite taking 70 minutes to get on the scoreboard, Lions captain James Graham, who was playing in his 50th test, said they still felt they could win the match.

"At half-time we firmly believed that we were still in the fight," insisted the St George Illawarra prop.

"We knew we had a massive job on our hands, we spoke about some stuff about how we thought we could get back into the game - it certainly wasn't over - but obviously I thought the Tongans played with the lead very well in the second half."

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo consoles Lions captain James Graham.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo consoles Lions captain James Graham. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett said, try as they might, the tourists struggled to make inroads against the a very good Tongan side.

"It wasn't a lack of effort. They were up against it there at times, they were getting good momentum and we weren't kicking great," lamented the veteran coach.

"Second half we turned the ball over in vital field positions at different stages when we were in a lot of pressure. We gave away three seventh sets of tackles and stuff like that so it takes away all your energy to do anything with the football because you spend so much time defending."

Michael Jennings scored one and set up another try for Tonga.

Michael Jennings scored one and set up another try for Tonga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Kristian Woolf sung the praises of halfback Tui Lolohea, who shouldered the bulk of the playmaking burden following the withdrawal of Ata Hingano, and also singled out the performance of Brisbane teenager Tesi Niu, who was thrust into a starting role on test debut following the late withdrawal of Ata Hingano with a shoulder injury.

"He's only just turned 18. He hasn't played first grade yet - we only brought him into camp really late because of his performance at the (World Cup) Nines," Woolf explained.

"And basically because all these senior blokes wanted to bring him in, because they were impressed with him as a bloke and impressed with him as a player.

"I don't think he came away thinking he'd ever play but he was outstanding tonight and he's certainly shown that he's going to play a lot of NRL, I think, in the very near future and he's going to play a lot more games for us as well."

Debutant Tesi Niu.

Debutant Tesi Niu. Photo: RNZ Pacific

Niu has yet to play a senior club match and admitted he was a bundle of nerves during his test debit.

"It means everything to me," said the Brisbane Broncos contracted player.

"I never thought I would get to represent my country and it's pretty scary playing with some of these players as well, like Jase (Taumalolo), (Andrew) Fifita, Manu Ma'u and that (after) watching them on TV.

"I'm really grateful for the opportunity to represent my country with all the boys, it's something I will never let go."

9420 fans attended the test between the Tonga Invitational XIII and Great Britain.

9420 fans attended the test between the Tonga Invitational XIII and Great Britain. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

A small but vocal crowd of 9420 fans watched on from the stands in Hamilton and Kristian Woolf hoped more of their supporters will turn up for next weekend's test against Australia in Auckland, which is part of an international triple-header at Eden Park.

"I'd like to think that we get 50,000 Tongans there next week or whatever it holds," he said.

"I think it certainly showed tonight what it means to these blokes and I've said before that this is a terrific group of men that everyone from Tonga should be really really proud of and what they do for the country and how they carry themselves and obviously how they represent the country when they play as well.

"The people who are calling for boycotts: I've been here for seven years and I've never seen them involved in footy so they're not here to help. They've obviously got some self-interest and these people are the ones that everyone should be supporting."

Kristian Woolf.

Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Woolf said Manu Ma'u is under a slight injury cloud after being forced from the field but Ata Hingano and Kotoni Staggs, who withdrew from the match following a death in the family, will be available to play in next weekend's Oceania Cup test against Australia, while Tevita Pangai Junior and Joe Ofahengaue will also be back from suspension.

Meanwhile Great Britain duo Oliver Gildart and Luke Thompson are set to miss the rest of the Lions Oceania Tour after suffering a rib injury and dislocated shoulder against the Tongans.