Scotland are through to a unlikely glamour Rugby League World Cup quarter-final against holders New Zealand after Tonga ended Italy’s fairytale run in a tense affair in Halifax.
Although the Scots ended their group campaign with five points out of a possible six, their fate hung in the balance until after yesterday’s clash at The Shay. Scotland coach Steve McCormack and his squad watched the action on television from their Manchester hotel knowing an Italian victory would put his undefeated team out of the competition and the tension must have been unbearable after a try-less first half which closed with Tonga just 2-0 in front.
However, the Tongans came to the Bravehearts’ rescue, roared on by the 10,266 crowd which lapped up the charging runs of Fuifui Moimoi which lifted his side as well as their new-found fans. Instead of going through to the last eight, Italy, who warmed up for the World Cup with a shock win over England, finish bottom of Group C after suffering their first defeat.
Scotland, who will have been relieved to see Italy have two tries disallowed, will now go back into training to prepare for Friday’s clash with the Kiwis at Headingley. McCormack has set his sights on plotting the downfall of World Cup holders New Zealand. “I’m immensely proud,” McCormack said. “We all watched it in a room together and to have that much emotion and pleasure from a game that we could not control was unbelievable.
“We only enjoyed it when that final try was scored. That was when we relaxed. Up until then, it was very tense.
“Every Tongan tackle and try and break was met with a big cheer and, when we heard the Halifax crowd began chanting for Tonga, we starting chanting as well. I feel a bit for Carlo Napolitano but he’s had a great tournament with Italy.”
Scotland, who were relieved to see Italy have two tries disallowed by video referee Phil Bentham, will now go back into training on Monday morning to prepare for Friday’s 8pm clash with the Kiwis at Headingley.
“I hope they do well,” said Tonga captain Brent Kite. “I hope they go out there and give it their all. I was hoping that Tonga could get into a quarter and show people that we’re coming along and show that internationally there’s reason to play more games and give little countries like Tonga and Scotland a go. I’ll be cheering for Scotland and any of those emerging nations that come through to the quarters. I hope they can do themselves proud.”
Tonga, who could not qualify after losing to Scotland in their opening game, led only 2-0 at half-time but, urged on by a partisan crowd, scored tries through Daniel Foster, Willie Manu and Peni Terepo to ease to victory.
“We came up against an Italian side that had everything to play for,” Kite added. “All we had to play for was that national pride and we got ourselves up to maybe produce our best game of the tournament so I’m very proud of that. It was a nice rowdy crowd in and it seemed like we had a good share of the support. They certainly know their rugby league and enjoy it.”
Instead of going through to the last eight, Italy, who warmed up for the World Cup with a shock win over England, finish bottom of Group C. “Nothing we did worked,” said Napolitano. “We didn’t stick to our game plan in the first half. I felt as if we just couldn’t seem to get into the game.”
Disappointed captain Anthony Minichiello insisted that, despite their exit, the World Cup will go down as a success for the Azzurri as they look to strengthen the game in Italy. “Our goal was to top the group so all the boys are disappointed,” said the Sydney Roosters full-back. “I think it’s still been a success for Italy. It was our first World Cup and we’ve only lost one game and we beat England as well.
“That was a bonus and created a lot of interest back in Italy to hopefully get rugby league stronger.”
Napolitana, who had a brief spell in Super League with Salford under McCormack in 2000, hinted that he could be ready to step down as national coach. “Maybe I’m not going to do this role as head coach again,” he said. “It’s been 14 years.”