2021 RLWC Round 1, Tonga 24 Papua New Guinea 18 – Report

Shannon Meyer reviews the big Group D clash between Tonga and Papua New Guinea.


Tonga 24
Tries: Will Penisini (13) Moeaki Fotuaika (34) Isaiya Katoa (35) Keaon Koloamatangi (77)
Goals: Isaiya Katoa 4 (15, 35, 38, 79)

PNG 18
Tries: Rhyse Martin (5) Lachlan Lam (41) Dan Russell (68)
Goals: Rhyse Martin 3 (6, 42, 69)


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Tonga have narrowly beaten a gallant PNG Kumuls side in the first game of Group D and likely the game of the round, where PNG were inches away from an upset win.

Despite being big underdogs for the game the Kumuls started the brighter of the two sides with several attacks on the Tonga line in the first five minutes, and the PNG side did indeed open the scoring through captain Rhyse Martin who crashed through the Tonga defence close to the line after sharp work from Edwin Ipape and Kyle Laybutt in the lead up. Martin converted his own try for a surprise 6-0 lead.

PNG continued to remain on top after that first try, giving the star-studded Tongan side absolutely nothing in attack, and showing some fresh attack and none of the one out play of the past. 

The Kumuls went close twice around the ten-minute mark. A potential try in the corner was stopped by Tonga batting down the final pass, and Edwin Ipape went very close to sneaking a try from dummy half but dropped it inches away from scoring.

Tonga was next to score and it was set up by a flying Tolutau Koula who made broke through the PNG defence on the kick return, then fired a somewhat forward-looking pass to Will Penisini in support. The conversion tied it up at 6-6 after 15 minutes. Hopefully PNG hadn’t run out of gas already.

Tonga looked certain to score from a scrum close to the PNG line not long after, but Koula ran at Justin Olam instead of passing and the wall-like Olam sorted him out. But Tonga were now well on top, making twice the ground of PNG in each attacking set, but the Kumuls were hanging on with desperate defence and the occasional Tongan error.

PNG almost scored twice on the left wing around the 25th minute mark. The first was when a final pass was almost intercepted but knocked on. The second Dan Russell had actually crossed the line and scored, but video replays showed the stand-in winger had put his foot on the touch line before scoring. You get the feeling that PNG will regret not taking advantage when they had the chance.

Sure enough, Tonga were next to score, through Moeaki Fotuaika who charged over close to the line with the final pass coming from Keaon Koloamatangi. The attacking set was set up by Tuimoala Lolohea who darted his way around the PNG defence in the lead up. The try under the posts was converted and Tonga led 12-6 with five minutes to go in the second half. 

Tonga then doubled down with the very next set, Haumole Olakau’atu making the break through the Kumuls line and Isaiya Katoa in support to score under the posts. Katoa converted his own try and all of a sudden Tonga were out to a 18-6 lead, which on the whole of the first half performance, was a bit unfair to the Kumuls who had given the Tongans plenty of competition in the first half, and possibly could have been on 18 points themselves with a little more luck, and thinner sideline paint.

PNG needed to strike early against Tonga, and they certainly did that with their first attacking set. After a strong attacking set Edwin Ipape ran down the blind side from the halfway line and broke through at least four Tongan defenders dragging them along as he fired the ball inside for a supporting Lachlan Lam who went on to score under the posts. The score was back to 18-12 and PNG had started the second half on a high.

PNG almost scored again in the 54th minute through Roderick Tai, and would have deserved it on the balance of play, but after a detailed and lengthy review the try was disallowed. The Kumuls have been millimetres away from leading 24-18 as both of those tries probably should have been scored. Although it must be said the the Tongan defender used the shoulder in stopping try which was not looked at.

Unlike the first half the Kumuls hung on desperately in defence straight after a no try disappointment, as Tonga attacked their line and were resisted of multiple occasions with David Fifita coming the closest. PNG also were growing in confidence in attack. At 18-12 in the 62nd minutes, this game was anyone’s, but sadly for PNG the errors were creeping into their game.

Things were starting to look up for PNG, a successful referee challenge, followed by Tonga dropping the ball one metre from their own line, and they took full advantage with 12 minutes to go. From the scrum the Kumuls went left and a floating Alex Johnston drew defenders and threw the perfect final pass to Russell who made no mistake to score in the corner. Martin, who had kicked 40 in-a-row before the conversion, duly nailed it to even up the score to 18-18.

Tonga was presented with a great chance to take the lead in the 73rd minute with a penalty goal, 40 metres out in front but Katoa’s kick was unsuccessful. It remained 18-18, and tense in the game of the round for week 1.

But Tonga made amends in a mad scramble with two minutes to go to score the match winner through Koloamatangi. After missing the chance to take a field goal, the Tongans kept the ball alive through a few wild offloads, a grubber, but they kept the ball moving and retained possession and eventually Koloamatangi found his way to the line. Katoa converted the try to make the score 24-18.

The game was a fantastic contest and while Tonga did enough to win, the result was almost unfair to PNG, who were an inch or two from scoring two more tries and causing a real boilover in the first game of Group D. A draw would have been a fair result.

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