Shaun Wane had hoped his visit to Warrington to watch England’s two potential Rugby League World Cup semi-final opponents would result in, as he put it, Tonga and Samoa “ripping into each other”. He and everyone fortunate enough to be in attendance for an unforgettable afternoon in Warrington got that and so much more than they would have bargained for.
From the Tongan and Samoan war dances, the Sipi Tau and Sivi Tau, being performed together pre-match to the dramatic final moments and everything in between, this will be remembered as one of the tournament’s greatest occasions. But in reality, only one thing mattered come full time – and the Samoan celebrations both in the terraces and among their players will tell you how much this meant to their nation.
Three weeks on from a 60-6 victory for the hosts in the opener at St James’ Park, England and Samoa will meet again at the Emirates Stadium next Saturday, after Matt Parish’s side emerged on the right side of an all-Pacific classic. This time though, the stakes are much higher, with a place in the World Cup final on offer. England will be favourites, but the notion of a repeat of the one-sided match in Newcastle is unlikely.
Parish promised in the aftermath of that opener that Samoa would improve as the tournament rolled on. He was proved right here as they survived a ferocious and unforgettable occasion with the Tongans to book their place in the semi-finals for the first time.
“I said to the players they had the chance to make history at half-time,” Parish said. “There wasn’t much between the teams, it was just that tenacious defence at the end.”
It wasn’t decided until the final few seconds, either. Despite Samoa edging large periods of the second half, Sione Katoa’s try five minutes from time reduced their lead to just two points. That seemed to give Tonga renewed impetus for a dramatic final few moments, but they couldn’t find the telling blow to ensure it would be they, not Samoa, who progressed.
“I thought they were a little bit better than us,” their coach, Kristian Woolf, said. “We had the chance to win it, we didn’t quite make it happen but it was disappointing.” The spine-tingling pre-match war dances set the tone beautifully and when the whistle blew, the action didn’t disappoint.
Jaydn Su’a’s try broke the deadlock for Samoa after five minutes before Tonga responded within minutes through Daniel Tupou. Crucially though, while Stephen Crichton converted Su’a’s try, Isaiya Katoa pulled his wide before Samoa extended their lead through the outstanding Jarome Luai. That made it 12-4 in Samoa’s favour, before the Tongans again clawed the gap back before half-time when Sio Siua Taukeiaho touched down.
The break in play didn’t stunt the momentum and ferocity of either side and with points at a premium, Katoa and Crichton exchanged penalties to make it 14-12 to Samoa. Parish’s side then began to turn the screw and when Anthony Milford’s kick was grounded by Brian To’o, it felt like a pivotal moment. But Tonga responded with gusto and when Moses Suli’s break was finished by Katoa, the stage was set for a grandstand finale.
Tonga threw everything they could at their opponents. But time and time again in an enthralling final few moments, they held firm – and the celebrations at full time underlined how the Samoans knew they had emerged through a classic for the ages. Wane will not need telling having seen this first-hand, but this is a very different Samoa side England will take on in the capital next Saturday.