At Ballymore stadium, the spiritual home of Queensland Rugby Union, the clash between Queensland Tonga and Whenua Ariki Rugby to celebrate Waitangi Day went largely to plan, as the Tongans stumbled their way over the finish line against a determined opposition with National pride on the line.
The short preparation time for the match, effectively ruined any chance both teams had, of being structurally sound on game day in terms of cohesive pattern play and chemistry, which resulted in the game ultimately descending into a battle of wills.
After repelling wave after wave of Tongan attack on their own line (the Maoris literally held the Tongans, up over the line 4 times), against the run of play the Maoris were first to hit the score board, when a midfield bust 40 metres out by twinkled toed back Matthew Garland weaved his way through defenders after some sloppy clean up work by the Tongans left him with a one on one mismatch that allowed him to send five eighth Dion Taumata, over under the posts to put the Maoris in the lead early.
Well and truly shell shocked, the Tongans went back to the tried and true formula of giving it to their forwards to weaken the Maori resolve up front. From the kickoff, the Tongan forwards romped up the field from 60 metres out, metre by abrasive metre, via the good old pick and go method and got their the team just 5 metres out from their try line. From there, the Tongans were able to find an unmarked Jonathan Kalauta on the blind side and send him over untouched in the corner. Somi Tupou did a marvellous job to put over a tough conversion attempt from out wide to lock the scores once more.
The try sparked the Tongans into gear, even though it was very clear that a lot of players were still finding it very hard to shake off the preseason rustiness and lethargy during the process. After some patient lead up work, lead by stand out backrow trio of Simana Halaifonua, Chazz Mahina and Christian Filipine, the Tongans received a set piece scrum 10 metres out. This allowed the Tongans for the one and only time during the game, to implement a set play that actually came off.
After an incisive run by fearless debutant centre Sione Feao that centred play midfield, a barnstorming Dave Feao working around the corner left the Maori inside backs no chance at stopping the charging colossus and Brisbane City NRC prop to send the scores to 12-7. The scores remained this way into half time oranges.
The Tongans next score was a real crowd pleaser that came from inside the Queensland Tongans side of half way. After some clever interchange passing by the Tongan backs, they were able to provide passage for inside centre Somi Tupou to go under the posts and after converting his own try, put the Tongans just shy of two converted scores in the clear 19-7.
To the Maoris credit, they never stopped trying and not long before the final whistle, a Maori intercept resulting from some audacious but sloppy Tongan passing on their own line, sent Dion Taumata over for his second try and put his team within one try of securing the unlikeliest of victories.
From the kick off, the Maoris threw the ball around and forced the Tongan to scramble and into an uncomfortable dying passage to the game that would have no doubt forced Tongan supporters onto the edge of their seats, as the Maori came within just 20 metres of a match sealing try. The Maori efforts were only repelled by some desperate last ditch Tongan defense, that gave the Tongans a scrappy 19-14 victory.
Despite the rusty and lethargic performance, the Tongans can be pleased at the performance of young debutants Kitione Toia, Bronson Tauakipulu and Sione Feao and what that means for the future of the Queensland Tonga Rugby program.
In terms of stand out players, its hard to go past Chazz Mahina and Simana Halaifonua who were clear stand outs, with busy and effective performances in all areas of the game. Defensively, Halaifonua was at his best at the set piece, particularly the line out and Mahina, as expected, an absolute menace at the breakdown and in the exchanges. Offensively, both players were outstanding carrying the ball and linking with both their backs and forwards and both look set for a strong club campaign with their club teams.
The streak continues, but its on life support.