Three-Test series in England – an exclusive club of three members since 1907 – give us one thing more than anything else: narratives.
Other matches can’t provide the dramatic tension that this centuries-old system does: the same players representing the same teams facing off again in a week with new gripes and feuds to sort out.
“We lost the game ourselves; I don’t feel like they beat us.”
Tonga’s new captain Addin Fonua-Blake gave this first-ever three-game series in England involving a tier two nation its first Test series narrative with that quote – along with those of his coach, Kristian Woolf, following a 22-18 English victory at Totally Wicked Stadium.
Within 45 minutes of full-time, Woolf had obtained from his analysts the comparative ruck speeds of the two teams and was reading them out at a media conference, suggesting English referee Liam Moore had allowed his players to be held down for a second longer.
After the scores were 12-12 at the break, England winger Tom Johnstone posted consecutive tries to open up a 10 point lead before a late Tonga touchdown narrowed the scores to four with a couple of minutes left. Tonga ran out of time but by the same token, England had clearly worn their all-NRL opponents down.
New Zealand Warrior Fonua-Blake lamented: “I feel like we lost the game ourselves, I don’t feel like they beat us. I feel like, yeah, we handed them the game.
“I went up to the ref [at half-time] and said ‘mate, it feels like you’re calling us off a lot quicker than you’re calling them off’. They were in our face a lot. Some of them [tackles] they did win. Others, it felt like it was a bit uneven or unfair.”
Early, man-of-the-match Mikey Lewis cut inside some rushing defence and pinned his nose back, hauled down short on the right. But quick hands to the left gave us the first points of the series with Toby King crossing and Harry Smith converting.
Tonga’s response was similar try with classy movement to the right after an incision on the left, Starford Toa dotting down for a touchdown confirmed by video referee Ben Thaler which went unconverted.
A little kick gave a try on debut to Tonga’s NSW Origin forward Tyson Frizell – who is now in doubt for the second Test with an ankle injury – and then Lewis emulated him at the other end after a few eye-catching off-loads punished a scrambling Mate Ma’a.
Captain Jack Welsby’s heady overhead pass found Johnstone for his deadlock-breaking try following the half-time break.
“He’s thrown it a few times at training,” Johnstone said. “He’s a special player and you’ve just got to expect anything.”
Then the tiring Mate Ma’a rushed a pass on halfway and Johnstone snatched his second. It was winger Tolutau Koula who put the cat amongst the pigeons at the death, halfback Isaiya Katoa converting from the sidelines to bring up the final ledger.
Wane said winger Dom Young (infected abscess) may miss the entire series and will be checked mid-week. The England coach said he would definitely look at changing a winning side.
Woolf commented: “You’ve got to remember a lot of these guys haven’t played footy for six or seven weeks. We’ll get better.
“My disappointment is we allowed Mikey Lewis to run the footy. We knew he was going to be a runner.”