AUSTRALIA may have won on the scoreboard but, as the old cliche goes, the winner tonight was rugby league.
In front of a bumper crowd of 26,214, Tonga announced itself as a future powerhouse but it’s the fans who drew most of the interest.
After a crowd of 12,763 turned out to see Australia play New Zealand at the same ground last week, a sea of red Tongan jerseys flooded Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.
From a nation boasting a population of just under 110,000, it was an incredible turnout at the match, which included Tongan King George Tupou VI.
My young bloke just asked me “Dad, how many people live in Tonga?” Good question. Answer: 5 times the number of red shirts you can see at this game! 108k. Wow. #RoosTonga
A figure representing a quarter of the Tongan population turned up to the match, and most were wearing Tongan jerseys.
From before the players entered the field of play until after the match and presentations had finished, the fans at the ground created an incredible atmosphere.
Australian five-eighth Luke Keary said it was brilliant to play in front of such a passionate and emotional crowd.
“Awesome atmosphere, I think it’s brilliant what they’ve done and obviously the whole Tongan people and nation have gotten behind them,” he said.
“It was really good to get a win, we were really disappointed last week so we had to turn up tonight.
“We lost the physical battle last week and we didn’t do this jersey justice.
“It was like a carnival atmosphere. They’re all happy and they all sang the Australian anthem. It was such a good atmosphere, happy, they’re good people and they showed it tonight.”
The match caps off a stellar year for Keary after he was concussed on his Kangaroos debut last week.
The new Aussie halves pairing of Daly Cherry-Evans and Luke Keary embrace after the win.Source:Getty Images
Keary and his Roosters won the NRL grand final, he himself won the Clive Churchill Medal and he made his Australian debut.
Speaking on the Channel 9 coverage of the game, Darren Lockyer added the atmosphere was great for rugby league.
“Without (Andrew) Fifita or (Jason) Taumalolo coming over to Tonga, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Lockyer said of the high profile defections before last years’ World Cup.
“They arrived on the international stage last year at the World Cup when they beat New Zealand and almost beat England. With (Tevita) Pangai Jr. and (David) Fusitu’a, it’s just what the international game needed. Not just for the football they create but for the atmosphere and their fans.”
Tonga and North Queensland Cowboys star Jason Taumalolo said the fans just turn out for the country.
“We always knew it was going to be a big crowd and we’ve had a big following since last years’ World Cup, so it’s great to see everyone turn up, not only supporting Tonga but Australia too, it’s great to see,” Taumalolo said.
“They’re obviously the benchmark and the boys handled themselves pretty good tonight. There were a few cobwebs there with the boys. But at the end of the day it was a great game of footy and a great turnout.”
Fans on social media were also blown away by the crowd, who were singing throughout the second half.
Has there been a greater display of fandom in NZ or Australia ever? Tonga giving sports codes, clubs and fans a lesson in support #AUSvTON pic.twitter.com/b6GHjZXYgg
We can all agree that the winner tonight was the atmosphere!. What a crowd!!.. congrats Australia and Tonga for a great game!!.. #AUSvTON #matemaatonga #growingthegame ?? ??
It’s like a FIFA World Cup Gatty, similar atmosphere. Best one you can get at a footy game
Mate Ma’a Tonga deadset shame any other (TV) supporters of sport in NZ.
Still in with a sniff here, I reckon! Go Tonga… The singing is AWESOME!! #RoosTonga
I feel like I wanna die for Tonga too listening to their supporters sing lol ????❤❤
Tonga entered the match with high expectations after witnessing New Zealand defeat Australian by two points last week, the same team Tonga had beaten in last years’ Rugby League World Cup.
It hoped to become the first Tier Two nation in 40 years to beat the world champion Kangaroos.
However, doubles by Tom Trbojevic and Valentine Holmes gave Australia a 30-10 lead by halftime.
But Tonga won the second half 6-4 in an impressive display.
The Tongan fans were out in force.Source:Getty Images
Tongan captain Sika Manu said the side would learn plenty from the match.
“I think we didn’t play too bad but the discipline let us down,” Tonga captain Sika Manu said. “We were just glad to have the chance to compete against them and hopefully we’ll get more games against them in the future.”
It was an emotional start to the match with several Tongan players visibly tearing up during the national anthem before a powerful rendition of the traditional Tongan war dance the Sipi Tau.
We face the Sipi Tau for the first time.#RoosTonga#GoTheRoos pic.twitter.com/8Q0LHZFXpZ
Australia captain Boyd Cordner, who has played in NRL and World Cup finals, was impressed by Tonga’s fans, who sang the Australia national anthem as a mark of respect for the Kangaroos.
“Look at this, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Cordner said. “For us it’s a new-look team, I think that showed tonight but as time goes on we’ll get better as a group.”
Speaking after the game, rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns said Tonga put their right foot forward.
“They got it right in the second half the Tongans, they built some pressure,” he said.
“A really entertaining game, a couple of errors early cost the Tongans but you’ve got to understand there was a lot of emotion from them. But they can build on it.
“They just need to build the international game, give them more games, even games against Samoa but the tier one teams you get Tonga and these teams up against England and Australia and New Zealand.”
Canterbury teammates David Klemmer and Will Hopoate catch up.Source:AFP
Former Jillaroos star Alana Ferguson said the crowd was a big factor in the game.
“It’s so great to see that they are there and the fact the crowd was behind them and in the second half the crowd was almost singing the entire time. They certainly put on a spectacle,” she said.
“Joey said their second half was better but I loved what the Aussies did in the second half to just grind it out. In the first half, they were just unbelievable on the edges.”
Similarly, NRL legend Paul Gallen took to Twitter, praising both sides for the match.
That game was great for international footy. Great 2nd half from Tonga, great display of defence by Australia and an amazing crowd. The atmosphere there would of been amazing. Well done to all.
— with AP
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