Nothing sets the pulse of a rugby league fan racing like a Great Britain Lions Tour down under, and after a twelve year absence the Lions opened their four match odyssey with a visit to the FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton City, New Zealand, to take on a Tongan Invitational XIII.
There was only one survivor in the GB squad from the side which whitewashed New Zealand in 2007, the skipper James Graham who had been a substitute in Tony Smith’s side in all three matches during the last UK test series.
There was a strong and passionate Tongan support in Hamilton for the game (despite the recent issues and some requests for Tongan supporters to stay away), a good contingent of tourist supporters who had made the long trip, and plenty of neutrals who were getting a look at the Lions side ahead of the two match series against New Zealand.
After a good opening from the Lions, thanks to a mistake from the kick-off, it was the Tongans soon found their feet and used their big forwards to battle them downfield to lay seige to the British line to dominate the opening twenty minutes.
The Lions defence was forced to work hard to keep their line unbroken as they struggled to get much traction in attack. Tonga broke the deadlock just before the half-hour mark with a try from inside their own half after a kick through was picked up in broken play and moved through three pairs of hands for John Asiata to give Michael Jennings the opportunity to run the angle and dive over. Sio Siua Taukeiaho added the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
Tonga lost the ball with the line beckoning a couple of minutes later as the Lions escaped conceeding back to back tries.
A sensational try, thirty seconds after the half time hooter, extended the Tonga lead. The ball was kept alive through multiple passes and offloads with Sione Katoa spectacularly grounding a grubber kick to the corner. Taukeiaho kicked the conversion from the left touchline to take his side into the sheds with a 12-0 lead.
Five minutes after the restart Oliver Gildart chased a grubber but failed to get the first hand on it as Tonga grounded in goal and took a drop out. Five minutes later a high tackle from Andrew Fifita gave Great Britain six tackles ten metres from the line but a grounding over the line by the defence forced another drop out.
Despite dominating the opening twenty minutes of the second half it was the Lions who conceeded the first points of the second half when an obstruction on Tesi Niu, by Alex Walmsley, gifted Taukeiaho a two point penalty goal for 14-0.
With ten minutes remaining John Bateman finally put the Lions on the board as he slid over the line under the tackle to ground the ball. Gareth Widdop kicked the conversion from wide to reduce the margin to eight points.
GB put everything that they had into attack in the remaining minutes but the Tongan defence was too strong and too aggressive. Depite being the best side in the second half the Lions were defeated, predominantly by the ‘never say die’ try from Katoa at the end of the first half.
This was a brilliant victory for Tonga who have had more than their fair share of administrative in recent weeks and months. Their defence was awesome as they repelled the best that GB could deliver to keep them out for the opening seventy minutes. GB will need to learn the lessons of this defeat and hopefully carry them into next weeks game against New Zealand.
Tonga Invitational XIII: Hopoate, Fusitua, Jennings (T), Hurrell, Tupou, Lolohea, Niu, Fonau-Blake, Havili, Taukeiaho (3G), Murdoch-Masila, Mau, Taumalolo. Subs: Fifita, Katoa (T), Asiata, Tupouniua.
GB Lions: Coote, McGillvary, Hardaker, Gildart, Hall, Widdop, Hastings, Hill, Hodgson, Thompson, Bateman (T), Whitehead, Graham. Subs: Jones, Burgess, Lomax, Walmsley.
Referees: Chris Kendall.