Darkhorse World Cup hope Tonga managed to weather some tough calls on and off the footy field to pip Ireland 22-20 in a heart stopping rugby league World Cup match at Parramatta Stadium.
Unable to field leading NRL players Fuifui Moimoi and Taniela Tuiaki, Tonga was forced to player with 12 men in an action packed match up with the Irish.
Unknown flanker Damien Blanch nabbed a hat-trick for the Irish, almost netting the Ireland side a massive scalp in the tournament.
But it was big Esi Tonga who got his team going with a punishing 73rd minute touchdown.
It was villain to hero for the aptly named Tonga, the firey star sin-binned by British referee Steve Ganson.
Ireland didn’t waste their chance and laid on 14 points while Tonga had men in the sin bin.
Trailing 6 zip in the early periods, following a converted try to Tonga’s Penrith star Michael Jennings, Ireland fully capitalised when Esi Tonga was binned for repeated infringements in the 23rd minute.
Blanch nabbed the first of his bag of touchdowns 3 minutes later and custodian Michael Platt send the underdogs to the front despite what appeared to be a blatant forward pass by halfback Karl Fitzpatrick.
With their full complement restored, Tonga hit back with a try to winger Cooper Vuna and led 12-10 at the break following a penalty to halfback Joel Taufa’ao.
The see-sawing encounter took another twist in the 49th minute when Tongan five-eighth Feleti Mateo was sin-binned for back chatting.
Blanch scored his second try before Mateo returned to put Ireland back in front, but Tonga hit back to regain the lead with their third try.
Blanch completed his hat-hat-trick to snatch the lead back for Ireland, but Tonga’s late four-pointer prevented the Wolfhounds from causing the upset.
Tongan coach Jim Dymock said he thought the luck of the Irish was going to get his team but credited his side for winning despite being outnumbered for so long.
“In that respect, out of adversity we did well, but I thought our execution was pretty poor,” Dymock said.
“Although we dominated, we sort of showed a lack of respect for Ireland and full credit to them, they came out and stuck it to us.”
Questioned about Ganson’s decisions, a diplomatic Dymock thought some penalties against his team could have been caused by a difference in interpretation.
He said was disappointed with some backchatting by his side and felt most of the penalties were warranted.
Dymock said he hadn’t been thinking about this morning’s court decision involving Moimoi and Tuiaki.
Mateo, who crafted a crucial 40-20 kick shortly before the decisive score, said he felt the responsibility to step up in the closing stages of the game.
Ireland coach Andy Kelly was disappointed with the result, but immensely proud of his side.
“We played with a great deal of passion and pride, but didn’t get the result,” Kelly said.
Hat-trick hero Blanch said Samoa could throw his team a lifeline by beating Tonga next Friday, but had hoped his team wouldn’t have to rely on that.
“The boys are gutted, we went so close and to lose by two points is really disappointing,” said Australian-born Blanch, who was playing his fourth Test for Ireland.
The former Penrith lower-grader, who now plays for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in England, qualified for Ireland through a grandparent who was born in Belfast.