Wow. What a game. This is exactly what World Cups are about; two nations needing exposure and competition going at each other for 80 minutes. Tonga just about deserved to win, but they were pushed all the way by an Irish side that could have won it but for a bit more composure.
Actually, both sides were rather lacking in that department on the day. I think that contributed to the entertainment factor of the game. It certainly stopped Tonga pulling too far ahead at any point. In fact, if they had more discipline it’s not outrageous to think that this game could have been over by the start of the second half, but every time the Tongans started to gain an advantage they threw it away. This was a proper back-and-forth contest that was worthy of any stage, but the Tongan indiscipline was one of the major dramatic contributions.
Another factor was the spectacular passages of play that the two sides put on. When Tonga actually focused on the job at hand they produced an eye-catching offloading, hard-hitting, quick flowing game which would challenge all but the sturdiest defences. At the heart of it was Feleti Mateo, who encapsulated the entire Tongan performance by himself. He was either back-chatting to the referee and incurring his wrath (including a trip to the sin-bin) or he was producing sublime bits of play. He and Michael Jennings were threatening every time they touched the ball and are among the front-runners for performers of the tournament.
Of course it takes two to tango, and Ireland were good enough to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them and then some. Damien Blanch of course had a game to remember in scoring his hat-trick, but the pack also did a good job of matching up to the Tongans. In the end they probably paid for a lack of natural play-makers; Scott Grix and Karl Fitzpatrick are good players, but both have been mostly playing full-back and to ask them to slot in together to form a cohesive half pairing is probably a tad unfair. They both tried their hardest and had hands in the Irish tries, but they couldn’t provide the Wolfhounds with the direction needed to outsmart Tonga. Even so, Ireland have a lot they can take out of th game as they look ahead to Samoa.
Tonga are also looking ahead to a game against the Samoans on Friday, and it could be a classic. The biggest ask for them will be making sure their bodies are up the task of taking on Samoa after such a physically taxing encounter. Of course they should be up for Samoa anyway, but it’s possible that the neat couter-action to that physical demand is that they no have momentum on their side after coming through such an enthralling game. And to think I nearly didn’t get up in time…