Kristian Woolf returned to the Totally Wicked Stadium, this time in charge of a Tongan side starting an historic three game test series against an England side under the control of Shaun Wane who was looking to banish thoughts of a disappointing World Cup last November.
England gave debuts to rising stars Mikey Lewis and Harry Newman but were without regular skipper George Williams who will miss the opening two games through suspension, the skippers arm band being thrown in the direction of rugby prodigy Jack Welsby, captaining his international side for the first time, and on his home ground.
The home side were the favourites with a six-point handicap on the coupon, the good crowd in St Helens with their fingers crossed that Tonga wouldn’t provide the shock and heartache that Samoa inflicted in the semi-final in November 2022.
Both sides showed their intention to kick early in their sets and try and play the game in their opponents’ half. England’s first try was thanks to a sensational Mikey Lewis break and sprint over forty metres, the Hull KR man hauled down just short, but after a fast play-the-ball the action went to the left with a long pass from Victor Radley into the hands of Toby King was a simple walk-in try. Harry Smith added the conversion for a 6-0 lead on nine minutes.
On fourteen minutes Tonga crossed in the right-hand corner with Starford To’a finishing a delightful fast hand passing move to ground by the flag. Isaiya Katoa was unable to add the conversion from wide.
On twenty-three, Tonga hit the front with Tyson Frizell being first to react to a Lolohea grubber kick towards the corner to drop to the floor and ground. Katoa added the touchline conversion for a 10-6 lead. Tonga starting to find the chinks in the England armour.
With thirty-minutes on the clock Lewis crossed the whitewash with another great solo effort, throwing a dummy and then stepping off both feet before straightening up to go in. Smith added the conversion to put England back into the lead.
A Katoa penalty on thirty-five put the sides back square at 12-12, and on the half time hooter he was short with a forty-metre penalty attempt, the sides going into the sheds all square after a very competitive first half.
Both sides had opportunities at the start of the second half, but great defensive efforts kept them out until the fifty-fourth minute when a sensational ball from the England skipper Welsby went into the hands of a grateful Tom Johnstone to go around his opposite number and ground five in from the left touchline. Smith pushed his conversion across the face of the posts, England four points up.
Here was daylight for England on sixty-six, Johnstone intercepted a fumbled pass and sprinted fifty metres to score under the sticks and give Smith a simple conversion for 22-12.
Tom Burgess was held up over the line on seventy-three and on seventy-seven Tolata’u Koula scored an acrobatic try in the corner after fast passing across the field from right to left, the winger having space to squeeze in down the wing. Katoa added the conversion from the touchline to reduce the margin to four points. Try as they might, the Tongans couldn’t get over in the dying moments and England held on for a four-point win.
A great first test, and the right result for Sean Wane’s men, but the squad will know that they cannot let their guard drop in the remaining two test matches or Tonga will sneak in and take the series. Onwards to Huddersfield next Saturday for the second test, it should be a belter.
England: Welsby, Makinson, Newman, King (T), Johnstone (2T), Lewis (T), Smith (3G), Burgess, Clark, McMeeken, Bateman, Whitehead, Radley. Subs: Walker, Knowles, Lees, Hill. 18th Man: Farrell.
Tonga: Hopoate, To’a (T), Penisini, Suli, Koula (T), Lolohea, Katoa (3G), Fonua-Blake, Havili, Fotuaika, Frizell (T), Koloamatangi, Kaufusi. Subs: Teaupa, Tatola, Olakau’atu, Sele. 18th Man: Katoa.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, 6-8, 6-10, 10-10, 12-10, 12-12 : HT: 16-12, 20-12, 22-12, 22-16, 22-18 :FT.
Lead Exchanges: England – Tonga – Square – England – Square – England.
Referee: Liam Moore.