Tonga's fairytale run has come to an end with Mate Ma'a going down 20-18 in the World Cup semi-finals to a disciplined England side in front of an incredible crowd at Mt Smart Stadium.
A pre-game for the ages
The World Cup has provided us with some unforgettable moments from epic tries and upset wins to cultural challenges and spine-tingling emotion in the stands. However, the past four weeks pale in comparison to what took place in Auckland ahead of the second semi-final. Tongan fans painted Mt Smart Stadium red, with the aerial shots not doing the atmosphere justice. The noise, the passion and the energy reverberating through the stadium was something NRL clubs could only dream about, with fans almost drowning out another stirring rendition of the Sipi Tau. It's a shame that Tonga fell at the final hurdle, but their emergence as a genuine powerhouse is a huge win for the international game.
Costly errors cruel Tonga despite epic comeback
They've been driven by emotion throughout the World Cup, but perhaps the moment got the better of Mate Ma'a when it mattered most. While flair and brute force saw them dominate lesser opposition, composure was always going to be key against an English side coached by Wayne Bennett. Unfortunately the Tongans were plagued by ill-discipline with four consecutive errors in good-ball zones on the back of pushed passes early in the tackle count in the first half. The inability to build pressure led to frustration in defence with Tonga also conceding five first half penalties to let their opponents off the hook coming out of trouble. The usually-reliable Daniel Tupou had the chance to get his side back into the contest minutes into the second half but came up with a horrible handling error to perfectly illustrate their woes in attack. Tonga tried their best to pull off a ridiculous comeback at the death but they came up agonisingly short as Andrew Fifita had the ball stripped 10 metres out from the line in the final play of the game. He then regathered the ball to plant down what would have been the game-winning try had it been play on but referee Matt Cecchin opted not to engage the video referee after ruling a knock-on.
Fullback switch for Widdop?
He might be one of the best halves in the game but does Gareth Widdop have a future in the No.1 jersey? The Englishman burst onto the scene in the NYC as fullback in the Storm's 2009 premiership win but has played the majority of his first grade career in the halves. Widdop started the World Cup in the halves but his switch to the back has given the English the attacking spark they lacked earlier in the tournament. It was his line break that got England on the front foot against Tonga and he stayed hot in the first half with a try assist and a determined run to cross for his side's second four-pointer. In the end his boot got them home with an early second-half penalty goal the difference as England just held on. You'd think Widdop would partner new recruit Ben Hunt in the halves next season at the Dragons with Matt Dufty lining up at fullback, but given his recent performances, there's no reason why he can't dominate in the No.1 jersey at NRL level.
Hodgson racing the clock
England's only hope of beating Australia this summer – their cricketers stand no chance – rests on Josh Hodgson's availability for the decider. The dynamic No.9 is key to England's attack but the Raiders hooker is in doubt for next week's final after limping from the field with a knee injury. Hodgson went down early in the game after being caught awkwardly in a tackle and didn't last much longer as he was forced off midway through the first half. James Roby has had a fantastic tournament but there is no denying that England are a better team with both men on the field. Australia have their own injury concerns, but Hodgson's availability looms as the big talking point next week.
Bring on Holmes v McGillvary
There are plenty of mouth-watering duels to look forward to next week, but the crème de la crème clash will be on the wing when Valentine Holmes and Jermaine McGillvary go toe-to-toe in a battle of epic proportions. Holmes has rewritten the record books with 11 tries in two games for the Kangaroos but he won't have it all his own way against an English winger who has scored a try in every match throughout the World Cup. While Holmes has bamboozled the defence with his speed and footwork, his English counterpart relies on strength and footballing nous to outsmart his markers. Grand finals aren't won by wingers but this should still be a cracking confrontation between two players at the peak of their powers.