England holds out Tonga 20-18 to reach World Cup final

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — England conceded three tries in the last eight minutes but held on to beat Tonga 20-18 in the second semifinal of the Rugby League World Cup Saturday to join defending champion Australia in a final match-up next weekend which is both expected and unexpected.

Leading 20-0 in the 72nd minute, England appeared to be coasting towards its first World Cup final in 22 years. But it suddenly found itself under siege as Tonga scored late tries though Tevita Pangai Junior, Siliva Havili and Tuimoala Lolohea to draw within two points with less than two minutes remaining.

Tonga then had a chance to win when Andrew Fifita, a superstar of Australia's Natoinal Rugby League, made a break less than a minute from the finish. With the line open, Fifita had the ball struck from his grasp by England's Elliott Whitehead, and the final whistle sounded amid a clamor of protests from the Tonga players, who insisted they were due at least a penalty. Fifita had also recovered and grounded the ball and claimed the winning try.

When the referee refused their demands, the Tonga players collapsed to the ground in despair where they were comforted by their England opponents, as the huge contingent of Tonga fans at the match burst spontaneously into a Tongan hymn which swelled around the ground. Few spectacles in the history of the Rugby League World Cup matched Saturday's contentious finish.

"It's a tough loss to take," Tonga captain Sika Manu said. "The boys have played well the whole tournament and to take it to the wire like that, I'm so proud to be part of this group.

"Our motto has been 'die for Tonga' and throughout the tournament we've played for the full 80 minutes. We never give up and we showed that again today."

A final between 10-time champion Australia and England, which as part of Great Britain teams have won the tournament three times, did not seem unlikely when the tournament began a month ago. The surprise was that to reach to final, which will be played in Brisbane on Saturday, the teams had to make their way through semifinals against Pacific Island opponents.

Australia beat third-time semifinalist Fiji 54-6 on Friday to maintain its emphatic, unbeaten record at the tournament, while England beat semifinal debutant Tonga. The feature of this tournament has been the rise of the Pacific Island teams which previously had been handicapped by losing their top players to Australia or New Zealand.

This time, when those players committed to their Pacific nations, they became immediately competitive, reshaping international rugby league at the expense of New Zealand which lost to Tonga in group play and to Fiji, 4-2, in last weekend's quarterfinals.

Representing a nation of just over 100,000, Tonga drew on massive support among the Tongan community of New Zealand, attracting joyous, capacity crowds of red-clad, flag-waving fans. On Saturday, the nation's monarch, King Tupou VI, was among a record crowd of more than 30,000 fans — almost all Tongan — who watched the semifinal at Auckland's Mount Smart stadium.

Unfortunately, though unbeaten at the tournament until Saturday, Tonga was unable to rise again to the challenge of playing a first tier nation, as polished England made the final as an individual nation for the first time since 1995.

Fullback Gareth Widdop was the star, scoring a try, providing two assists and kicking four goals from four attempts.

Widdop made the break that led to winger Jermaine McGillvary's opening try in the 10th minute then scored himself six minutes later, giving England a 12-0 lead at halftime. Widdop slotted a 49th-minute penalty and provided the last pass in a try to John Bateman which, with Widdop's conversion, made the lead 20-0.

Tonga looked outmatched until it launched its stunning late offensive.

"It's been a long time waiting to make a World Cup final," Widdop said. "It's one of the best games I've ever played in.

"The Tonga supporters have been fantastic. They turned up tonight and showed their passion and their team kept fighting to the end."

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