Mate Ma'a Tonga have survived a scare from a committed PNG Kumuls outfit to come away with a 24-18 win at St Helens' Totally Wicked Stadium.
In the game of the World Cup to date, the Tongans broke an 18-18 deadlock with three minutes to play courtesy of a miracle try to Rabbitohs star Kaeon Koloamatangi on his Test debut.
After trailing 18-6 at the break, the Kumuls showed great courage to fight back and will take plenty of heart from the narrow defeat.
It was clear from the outset that the Kumuls had come to play, opening the scoring through skipper Rhyse Martin in the sixth minute when he powered onto a Kyle Laybutt pass and plunged over.
The Kumuls almost had a second five minutes later when hooker Edwin Ipape tried to burrow over from dummy half but lost the ball just short of the line.
A brilliant kick return by fullback Tolutau Koula led to Tonga's first try in the 14th minute, the elusive Sea Eagle bamboozling the defence before finding Will Penisini in support.
The Kumuls should have taken the lead in the 27th minute when Justin Olam put Dan Russell over in the corner but replays showed the winger had put his foot into touch before grounding the ball.
Come the 35th minute it was Tonga taking the lead when interchange forward Moeaki Fotuaika finished off some great lead-up work by Tui Lolohea and Koloamatangi to dot down under the sticks.
Dolphins-bound young gun Isaiya Katoa was next to score just 90 seconds later after Moses Suli surged into the back field and found the 18-year-old looming in support to take the score to 18-6 at the break.
The Kumuls hit back immediately after half-time when Ipape left four defenders in his wake and found Lachlan Lam backing up for a sensational PNG try.
A huge call in the 54th minute when the video referee ruled Kumuls winger Rodrick Tai had failed to ground the ball in the corner after watching several replays.
Having entered the game from the bench in the 52nd minute, David Fifita made an impact when he powered his way over the line only to be denied by desperate defence from Lam, who managed to hold him up.
A mistake by Koula at dummy half in the 68th minute gave the Kumuls a golden opportunity to grab their third try and Russell made amends for his earlier bombed try when he took the final pass from Alex Johnston to cross wide out.
18 year old scores in front of fan club
Martin calmly landed the conversion to level the scores at 18-18 before Isaiya Katoa had a shot at penalty goal from 40m out to put Tonga back in front but came up well short.
With the game seemingly headed for a draw, Tonga came up with a freakish try in the 78th minute, finished off by Koloamatangi from a Taukeiaho grubber after eight different players had handled the ball. Isaiya Katoa's conversion made it 24-18.
Match: Mate Ma'a Tonga v Papua New Guinea
Round 1 -
Mate Ma'a Tonga
Papua New Guinea
Venue: Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helen's
- The Kumuls had four line breaks to Tonga's two in the opening half but still trailed by 12 at the break.
- Moeaki Fotuaika has scored just five tries in 100 NRL games for the Titans but in Tests for Tonga he has one try in two matches after touching down in the 35th minute.
- Kumuls star Lachlan Lam has taken his tally to five tries in four Test matches.
- David Fifita started on the bench for Tonga and had to wait until the 52nd minute to enter the game.
- Only seven penalties were blown in the match as referee Liam Moore let the game flow and both sides played some free-flowing football.
Tonga Sipi Tau lights up St Helens
- This was the third World Cup meeting between the Kumuls and Tonga after a 28-all draw at the 1995 tournament and a 30-22 win for PNG on their way to topping Group 3 in 2000.
- Tonga skipper Siosiua Taukeiaho had the honour of leading his team in the Sipi Tau war dance before kick-off at Totally Wicked Stadium.
- Kumuls goalkicker Rhyse Martin has not missed a goal since July, his record now standing at 41 successful kicks in a row. The Leeds Rhinos sharpshooter has equalled the world record for most consecutive kicks without a miss.
- Tonga completed 23 of 33 sets at 69 per cent while the Kumuls completed 24 of 33 sets at 72 per cent.
- Felise Kaufusi and Soni Luke made 79 tackles between them for Tonga.
Plays of the Game
Hooker Edwin Ipape was one of the standout performers for the Kumuls and he produced a stunning run out of dummy half in the 41st minute to lay on a try for Lachlan Lam. The Leigh Centurions rake left four Tongan defenders clutching at thin air as he surged into the back field and delivered a perfectly timed pass for Lam to go over for PNG's second try of the night. Just three weeks after being named the Championship Player of the Year in first season at Leigh, Ipape gave the Kumuls plenty of impetus with his work out of dummy half. The Centurions are coached by Lam's father and Kumuls legend Adrian Lam.
Tonga's match-winner had to be seen to be believed, starting with Soni Luke at dummy half on the last tackle when a field goal seemed the most likely play. Luke decided to take a run, passing to Felise Kaufusi who found Siosiua Taukeiaho and then Isaiya Katoa before Will Penisini and Sione Katoa handled on the right edge. The mad scramble continued with Tolutau Koula getting a pass away to Taukeiaho who put in a clever grubber for Kaeon Koloamatangi to chase through and score.
Tonga thriller team try wins it
What They Said
"It was a bit of a blur. I think it was last tackle and the boys were just throwing the ball around and I was trying to the follow the ball in case something happened. Siua put a good kick in, it was perfect, and I was just lucky to be there. I always dreamt of playing for Tonga and to score a try at my first World Cup, in my first game, I'm very humbled by it." - Tongan forward Kaeon Koloamatangi on his match-winning try
"I'm just so glad that my boys played the best that they can tonight. We knew it was going to be tough and we kept turning up for each other and I thought we dug deep tonight. I want to say thanks to all the fans and all the family watching back home and thank you to all the fans who turned out here. I'm just so grateful that I have the opportunity to represent my country on this big stage." - Kumuls hooker and player of the match Edwin Ipape
Tepend gutted but proud
The next assignment for Mate Ma'a Tonga is against Wales at Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens on October 25 (5.30am AEDT) while the Kumuls face Cook Islands the following day in Warrington.