In the last World Cup, Tonga was a giant-slayer.
But this time around it is a Goliath and against Papua New Guinea it very nearly found its David.
In the match of the tournament so far, Tonga snuck home 24-18 against PNG in St Helens in a measure of how far the Kumuls have come and how far the Mate Ma’a still has to go.
If the Kumuls had managed to sneak home it might not have quite counted as a miracle but the try that beat them certainly felt like the work of a higher power. Keaon Koloamatangi’s 77th-minute score came after eight passes and a kick and saved Tonga’s faces turning as red as their jerseys.
Because it was not supposed to be this way. After all the hype and disappointment of Samoa’s crushing loss to England last week, this was supposed to be a reminder of Tonga’s quality and its true ambitions to give another World Cup a real shake.
The wave of defections back in 2017 transformed Tonga into a Test football powerhouse overnight and since then the side has collected wins over New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia. With the players at their disposal, there should be no limit to what they can achieve.
The talent isn’t just on the field either. While Samoan coach Matt Parish is under fire, Tongan mentor Kristian Woolf’s credentials are beyond reproach following three-straight premierships with St Helens.
Even with captain Jason Taumalolo suspended, Tonga had a side so stacked there were three players with State of Origin experience on the bench.
Only a fool would take Papua New Guinea lightly – the Kumuls players like to say their jersey is their second skin, and they play with a passion and intensity to make you believe it – but Tonga wasn’t supposed to need a miracle try to win. This was meant to be a showcase of Tongan power.
And it was that way, in parts, like when Tolu Koula knifed through the Kumuls defenders early on to set up a marvellous try for Will Penisini or when young phenom Isaiaya Katoa showed he’s been studying footy as much as his HSC as he scored a try just before the break.
On an uneven night for the Tonga, Koloamatangi was superb – after deputising at hooker early, he switched back to the forwards and set up a try for Moeaki Fotuaika before appearing from the clouds to score the winner.
But as a team effort it was hardly the stuff tournament challengers are made of – the Kumuls made a game of it with their effort and energy and it was talent, not technique, that got Tonga home.
Woolf’s side will improve through the tournament as the players spend more time together and their next two matches – against Wales and an underrated Cook Islands side – will likely not be as testing. But even then Taumalolo’s return can’t come quickly enough.
Papua New Guinea must be given enormous credit for nearly pulling off the ambush of the tournament so far. They have always played with a great physicality and have never known the meaning of fear, but now they have the craft and fitness to back it up.
Their scramble defence and resilience to level up from an 18-6 half-time deficit were the highlights of what was perhaps their finest hour in a World Cup, even accounting for the loss and were it not for a bombed try by winger Daniel Russell we very well might have seen celebrations in Port Moresby that made Australia’s America’s Cup celebrations look positively tame by comparison.
Stanley Tepend’s side has become a quiet success story in international rugby league in recent years in very different fashion to Tonga.
Where Tonga is built on the back of established NRL stars opting to represent their heritage, which is something Papua New Guinea benefits from as well through the likes of Lachlan Lam and Alex Johnston, the Kumuls also boast a series of homegrown stars who have risen from across their nation to become top class players.
Chief among the examples is hooker Edwin Ipape, born and raised in Mt Hagen, who parlayed some strong Queensland Cup seasons into a full-time deal with Leigh Centurions in England’s second division this season.
Ipape won the competition’s player of the year award and kept his good form going into this game, where he was man-of-the-match in a beaten side after a superb display at dummy half, highlighted by a blistering run to set up a try for Lam after half-time that spearheaded the PNG comeback.
Since the PNG Hunters were introduced to the Queensland Cup in 2014 there have been similar stories across the national side as the Kumuls have risen from easy-beats to a firm place in Test football’s middle class.
From here, they can only rise further and the foundations are there to do it. There are more players like Ipape, or tough forwards Sylvester Namo and McKenzie Yei, all over Papua New Guinea, just waiting for a chance.
Papua New Guinea’s greatest days are still to come but Tonga’s must happen right now. They are in the midst of a rich vein of talent but you never know when that might end or when one will come again.
They were lucky to escape with this one and the result all but ensures a draw that should make them favourites to be the fourth team into the semi-finals alongside Australia, New Zealand and England. If they make it that far, anything can happen.
But they cannot afford any further missteps because they have the chance to be truly great, to rattle the foundations of rugby league forever and who knows when they’ll have a chance like this again?
They should be one of the best teams in the world and need to start looking like it. This can be Tonga’s golden time but only they can make it so.