Steve McCormack’s unheralded Scotland side conjured up a Rugby League World Cup night to remember as they got their campaign off to the best possible start with a thrilling 26-24 win over Tonga thanks to Matty Russell’s late try.
Facing a side of powerful runners packed with experience in both the Super League and NRL, the Bravehearts did not take a backwards step and got their just rewards at Derwent Park in Workington. Priced as long as 8-1 beforehand, McCormack’s men gave the knowledgable Cumbrian fans a treat as the men from just over the nearby border galvanised themselves sufficiently after squandering a 16-point lead to win it. Even then they had to endure a last-second video referee decision – a sixth of the night– to get the job done.
Tonga set the tone with a rousing Sipi Tau haka and their enthusiasm drew a 37-second knock-on out of Scotland’s Adam Walker and after a couple of settling-in plays they took an eighth-minute lead as Sika Manu’s delayed ball put full-back Glen Fifi’iahi through.
Scotland’s response was a fine one, though, and one they could have been forgiven for not making considering the early battering they were getting from brutish prop FuiFui MoiMoi.
A short kick-off from talisman Danny Brough, the 2013 Super League ‘Man of Steel’, got them the ball back and after Konrad Hurrell coughed up possession in the next set, Russell dragged his way out of three would-be tacklers to score.
Brough upgraded the try and then tagged a penalty, with a tasty punch-up between the two sides in the meantime keeping the fans enthralled. Tonga returned with interest and Sosaia Feki was dragged in touch as he bore down on the corner, while Brett Carter – a local favourite as a Workington player – was guilty of taking his eye off the ball in an identical position.
He was bailed out by substitute hooker Ben Fisher, though, who scored Scotland’s second try with 32 minutes gone.
The retiring nine kicked ahead and his energy on the chase was rewarded as Fisi’iahi failed to gather the ball. Brough turned it into a six-point gift.
There was only one side in it, with Tonga apparently already out of steam, and as half-time approached, a third score arrived.
Fisi’iahi again fluffed his lines and from the subsequent set, Danny Addy’s fine pass put Carter in for the most popular of ‘home’ scores. Scotland’s fortunes were summed up as Brough landed the touchline goal, with the ball bouncing off the bar and dropping over.
Scotland took that score to the dressing rooms but Manu chipped away at the deficit immediately after the restart as he snaffled up a kick which reared up above Brough, giving Samsoni Langi an easy conversion. Tonga’s roll continued apace and Nafe Seluini went over from close range. Scotland were in tatters at the back and with 55 minutes gone Willie Manu grounded a Daniel Foster kick with his fingertip but another failed conversion left Scotland two points ahead. With 13 minutes left, Manu ran clear to put Tonga ahead. But Scotland were not done and somehow found a way to win it. Russell did as he had done in the first half, with Brough giving Scotland a two-point lead which they preserved.
Scorers: Tonga: Tries: Fisi’iahi, S. Manu 2, Seluini, W. Manu. Goals: Langi 2. Scotland: Tries: Russell 2, Fisher, Carter. Goals: Brough 5.
Tonga: Fisi’iahi, Tupou, Hurrell, Taufua, Feki, Langi, Foster, Kite, Havili, Moimoi, Taumalolo, S. Manu, W. Manu. Interchange: Seluini, Murdoch-Masila, Ta’ai, Paea.
Scotland: Russell, Hurst, Hellewell, Linnett, Carter, Brough, Wallace, Walker, I. Henderson, Douglas, Addy, Ferguson, Wilkes. Interchange: Fisher, B. Phillips, Stringer, Kavanagh.