Tonga scored 26 unanswered points in a dominant second half to pull away from an inventive but inaccurate American side in front of the Kingsholm faithful. A shocking five minute stretch just before the hour yielded 21 points from three converted tries to effectively kill off the match as a contest. It was an entertaining match from a spectator’s point of view, with both sides looking to play attacking rugby, but ultimately the Eagles couldn’t match the physical power of the big Tongans.
The United States actually started very well. A simple but seamlessly executed set move from a lineout found its way to Folau Niua, and after breaking the line, the fullback put lighting quick winger Tim Stanfill over for a superb try. Kurt Morath replied with a penatly goal but the Eagles were quickly back on attack, and looked odds on to score again had Niua not tried to be too cute with an ill-advised grubber finding Tongan hands instead of American.
Turnovers at this level rarely go unpunished, and this match was no exception. A half break from an inspired Aleki Lutui opened the space for Fetu’u Vainikolo to show his own pace, outstripping three cover defenders to put the Ikale Tahi in the lead, where they would stay for the rest of the game. Morath had a shaky day with the boot but did enough to notch two more penalties before a close range effort from John Quill, again starting from the lineout, pulled the United States right back into the game heading into the halftime break.
Things went downhill quickly in the second half. Another turnover with the Eagles on attack gave Tane Takulua a free shot at space with the wingers out of position, and Vungakoto Lilo looked certain to score only for his follow up soccer dribble to find the touch line first. After absorbing six minutes of sustained pressure, virtually all on their own goal line, the American tacklers finally cracked with Vili Ma’afu just getting under Quill to signal the beginning of the end.
A try-saving tackle on Stanfill by Lilo halted another Eagle attack and a knock-on allowed Tevita Halaifonua to take the corner. The big winger waded through Seamus Kelly and Niua before Stanfill miraculously caught him, only to see a magical over-the-shoulder offload end up in the hands of Lilo, who raced away for a fantastic try. Mere moments later it was Halaifonua himself on the end some very casual American passing, and just like that it was all she wrote. Captain Nili Latu added an extra during the dying minutes to round out the score.
It was a disappointing result for Mike Tolkin’s men, who were second best but not as far off as the scoreboard suggested. Basic handling errors coupled with some errant decision making ultimately cost them the game, but they showed ambition and looked dangerous when they played with width. The Tongans won the contact area and the combination of pace and power in their backline proved too much for their American counterparts.
The Eagles now head to France to face another Pacific rival, the flying Fijians, who pose a similar problem in terms of size and speed. For Tonga it’s a return to Scotland, this time blustery Kilmarnock, where they hope to repeat their upset of 2012. For both it signals the end of an important international schedule, and the last chance for outsiders to put their hand up for World Cup selection against higher ranking opposition.
TONGA 40 vs 12 UNITED STATES
Saturday, November 15, 16:45 GMT, Gloucester
04 mins – T. Stanfill try 0-5
05 mins – F. Niua con 0-7
08 mins – K. Morath pen 3-7
14 mins – F. Vainikolo try 8-7
20 mins – K. Morath pen 11-7
28 mins – K. Morath pen 14-7
38 mins – J. Quill try 14-12
50 mins – V. Ma’afu try 19-12
51 mins – K. Morath con 21-12
53 mins – V. Lilo try 26-12
54 mins – K. Morath con 28-12
56 mins – T. Halaifonua try 33-12
78 mins – N. Latu try 38-12
79 mins – L. Fosita con 40-12
25 mins – S. LaValla yellow (professional foul)
V. Lilo; T. Halaifonua (O. Katoa 64), S. Piutau, H. Paea, F. Vainikolo; K. Morath (L. Fosita 55), T. Takulua (T. Moa 70); T. Mailau (S. Lea 58), A. Lutui (E. Taione 58), P. Fa’anunu (S. Puafisi 58); L. Lokotui, J. Tu’ineau (L. Fa’aoso 70); S. Kalamafoni (H. T-Pole 70), N. Latu (capt.), V. Ma’afu.
F. Niua; T. Maupin, S. Kelly, A. Suniula (T. Palamo 58), T. Stanfill; S. Suniula, M. Petri; N. Wallace, P. Thiel (T. Coolican 63), M. Moeakiola (B. Tarr 70); J. Cullen, G. Peterson (T. Tuisamoa 58); S. LaValla (capt.), J. Quill (K. Sumsion 65), M. Trouville (T. Clever 63).
Referee: M. Fraser (NZRU)
Assistants: A. McMenemy (SRU) & L. Linton (SRU)