Tonga has survived a scare in its World Cup opener, holding off a powerful Papua New Guinea side to win a tight affair 24-18 late at St Helens.
In a pulsating contest at the Totally Wicked Stadium, arguably the game of the tournament so far, the Mate Ma’a were pushed hard by the talented Kumuls but just managed to edge the result.
Tied up 18-18 with just three minutes left, Keaon Koloamtangi sensationally crossed to secure the win for Tonga and break their opponents’ hearts.
Dan Russell went close to opening the scoring for Papua New Guinea in the corner early, but great Tongan defence just kept him out.
It mattered not, as minutes later Kyle Laybutt put Rhyse Martin over with a great short ball for the opening try.
Martin converted his own try to put the Kumuls ahead 6-0.
Papua New Guinea were having great success down the left edge with Justin Olam, and only a late block on a pass stopped Russell from touching down.
Straight after Edwin Ipape was unlucky to just ground the ball short of the line.
It proved costly, as Tonga hit back with a brilliant try. Totulatu Koula went on a mazy run, beating several defenders and then throwing a beautiful pass out wide to Will Penisini on the flank to score.
Isaiya Katoa added the extras to level it up.
Koula went close to grabbing his own try three minutes later, but desperate defence knocked the ball out metres from the line.
Spaces were opening up regularly and it was end-to-end footy.
The Kumuls kept attacking left and finally it bore fruit, Olam putting Russell over in the corner. But the winger had put a toe in touch, and the video referee ruled it out.
Penisini was having a nightmare time trying to contain a rampant Olam.
With the big hits flying in from both sides, it was the Mate Ma’a who finally broke the deadlock.
A perfect no-look pass from Koloamtangi was gleefully received by Moeaki Fotuaki for the try between the sticks.
Katoa’s conversion gave Tonga a vital 12-6 lead. Almost immediately they struck again, breaking through the middle for Katoa to score an easy try.
The halfback converted his own try, making it 18-6 heading into half-time.
Papua New Guinea started the second half brightly. Ipape made a break and set up Lachlan Lam to score and put the Kumuls back in the game.
Martin’s kick cut it back to 18-12 and it was match on. The Kumuls then went close to levelling it up again, but Koula hit Rodrick Tai in a great tackle in the corner to save the day and knock him into touch.
Tonga brought David Fifita onto the field and the Gold Coast enforcer made his presence felt.
Fifita barged over the line, but the video referee ruled he had been held up and no try was given.
The match went up a notch with 12 minutes left when, on the back of a scrum on the 10-metre line, Papua New Guinea threw on a shift to the left and Russell touched down to make it 18-16.
Martin stepped up and impressively nailed the kick from the sideline to tie it up.
Then with five minutes left Katoa attempted a penalty kick to win the game, but he shanked it and the ball fell short.
However, there was still high drama to come. With the clock winding down, Tonga went side to side and made pass after pass until finally Koloamtangi touched down to win the match.