Friday, September 28, 2007

Le Big Crunch

I was amazed just how close England fronted up to the Tongan Haka before kickoff - virtually nose to nose. Clearly, both sides meant business! At least the Tongan's green hair never materialised.

Kickoff was collected by England, who put immediate pressure on Tonga - Lewis Moody [right], typically chasing anything, took an accidental knee in the face while charging down a kick within the first two minutes. He wasn't down for long.

Tonga turned over an England break at six minutes, and came rampaging down the wing - eventually being pushed into touch. England seemed to be chasing high balls much better than last match. But they then gave away a penalty for holding on, just into their own half. Pierre Hola stepped up for the kick which just went over, giving Tonga the initial lead, 0-3.

The forwards went for a nice rumble up the pitch, with George Chuter driving from the rear. Paul Sackey took it further upfield and Tonga couldn't resist hands in the ensuing ruck. Jonny Wilkinson redressed the balance for a 3-3 score.

Olly Barkley made a great break in midfield taking a high ball, but England were turned over when Barkley was isolated in the tackle. On 16 minutes, Sukanaivalu Hufanga broke through Jonny Wilkinson's poor tackle and slid under the posts, with Hola converting for a 3-10 lead. But seconds later, Tonga gave away a penalty in their half, and were caught napping when Wilko booted a high ball for Paul Sackey to ground before sliding over the dead ball line - just! Jonny couldn't convert from out wide, so it was 8-10. Perhaps as a result of those tournament balls?

England had a decent lineout in the Tongan half, and the forwards drove up the wing. Spinning out side and switching from side to side, the England boys kept pushing up, forwards and backs. The Tongan defence held firm, and George Chuter knocked on with 5m to go. England gave a huge shove at the scrum, but Tonga's Finau Maka [left] still came out the back of the pack with it.

Then England had the put in for a 5m attacking scrum. Andy Gomarsall broke but was flattened by Maka, then the forwards had a go at making progress. Barkley was in the pocket, but failed to pop a drop goal. Opportunity missed - I'm sure Jonny would have scored from the same position.

The 22m dropout kick was very flat, and won by England who pushed into Tongan teeritory again - Jonny punting a lovely kick up the left wing for a 5m defensive lineout for Tonga. A chance for the forwards to do their disruptive best at the lineout - Steve Borthwick [right] making his presence known. The Tongans knocked on - for an England put in at the scrum. It went wide across the pitch, the attack was slowing down, and Wilko was in the right place - neatly slotting over 3 points for an 11-10 lead.

At 34 minutes, Tonga gave away another penatly, just in their own half, so Jonny stepped up for the 3 points to make it 14-10. Tonga were then looking dangerous in the England half, when Tonga spilled the ball, Sackey took the scraps and flew 83m down the right wing for another try. Wilko's conversion floated slightly wide, but a 19-10 lead was a bit more comfortable.

England needed to score first in the second half to push home their advantage. Two minutes in, Lewis Moody again collided heavily, this time with his No. 7 counterpart Nili Latu. The penalty incurred was missed by Jonny. It was now raining heavily, so perhaps he slightly missed his footing.

Matthew Tait [left] made a decent break at 44 minutes, to push England into Tongan territory. But England were unable to capitalise on it. At 47 minutes, Tonga had an attacking lineout but the England defence kept resisting. Eventually Tonga chased Andy Gomarsall into the in-goal area, and he was forced to put it down. So, a 5m scrum for Tonga. Gomarsall made a nuisance of himself and disrupted for a clearance back to the England 22.

Barkley was replaced by Andy Farrell at 51 minutes. England were lacking shape and Easter was pinged for hands in the ruck in our half - Hola was close enough for the 3 points to bring it back to 19-13.

Paul Sackey took a great clearance kick which failed to go into touch, it went through the hands and Mark Cueto [left] made a super break, eventually Matthew Tait took the ball over the line. And Wilko added the extras for a 26-13 lead.

At the restart, it was taken well by Nick Easter who offloaded beautifully to Martin Corry. England pushed up again but Andy Farrell crashed into his own man, so it was a Tongan scrum. The clearance was picked up by Josh Lewsey but England didn't make much more headway.

Matt Stevens was subbed for Phil Vickery and his first scrum was a good one. For 2-3 minutes, England pushed hard into Tongan territory, looking more promising. Lawrence Dallaglio came on at 64 minutes for Corry. The England scrum was good, and the ball passed through hands until Mark Cueto got within inches of the line. Tonga turned over but immediately knocked on, so the whites had 5m attacking scrum. It was swung into midfield and Andy Farrell [above] bounced over for a cruicial try under the sticks. And his first international try for England. Jonny added the extras for a 33-13 lead.

Around 70 minutes, Tonga were attacking up the wing when a long pass was intercepted by Andrew Sheridan, who thought it was a gift! Then England were on the attack again, going through the phases. Lee Mears took it upfield, but it wasn't going very far, so Jonny popped over another drop goal for 36-13 lead.

Tonga made a great break with their winger Tevita Tu'ifua, and ended up with a scrum about 10m out in England territory. They spun it wide and eventually England gave away a penalty inches from the line. Eventually they were able to clear, but Tonga kept pushing up from their lineout. They never gave up, but knocked on after a tackle from Phil Vickery, for an England put in around 77 minutes. It was botched at the back, so this time Tonga had a put in. They worked it across the field to put Hale T Pole over in the far corner, despite Josh Lewsey's best attempts. The conversion was good, and the final score was 36-20. They really deserved their final try, having played very creditably.

I think England's performance was an improvement from the Samoa game last week. Sackey's second try in the first half, and Farrell's first in the second half were both cruicial for morale and turning the game. There was a sticky 15 minutes in the second half, but they scrummaged well, won their lineouts, turned over a few opposition lineouts and defended well in the main. Jonny's points from the match means he's just five points behind Gavin Hastings' record of 227 World Cup points. He's back!

The Tongans have had a great World Cup, and I've really enjoyed watching them play over the last month. They have really acquitted themselves well, and looked the strongest of the three Island nations. Samoa have been disappointing, and Fiji have been ok if not outstanding so far.

So now we have a quarterfinal with Australia! Bring it on...

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