As soon as the draw for the World Cup was made the standout game of the quarter finals looked as though it might be the meeting of Tonga and Samoa, should Tonga win their group and Samoa complete theirs as runners up to England. And so it came to pass, the most eagerly anticipated game of the tournament so far.
The prize on offer was a semi-final encounter against England next Saturday afternoon as the two sides met for the nineteenth time with Tonga the slight favourites to pick up the win as world ranked number two against a Samoa side ranked as seventh.
Samoa had only been given a four point start on the coupon and everything pointed to a close encounter between the two, Polynesian rugby league mad countries.
A try from nothing from Jaydn Su´a was the first to trouble the scorers after he took a Anthony Milford short ball and stepped past Will Hopoate to run thirty metres and score under the sticks. Stephen Crichton added the conversion, Samoa with a 6-0 lead.
On seven minutes Tonga got their opening try with Daniel Tupou stretching forwards to take a miss-out pass and dot down in the corner before being tackled into touch. Isiaya Katoa was wide of the target from the touchline.
Jarome Luai shrugged off a challenge on sixteen, threw a dummy and jinked his way to the line from ten metres out for Samoa´s second. It was a simple conversion for Crichton from the shadow of the sticks for 12-4. The game was living up to the pre-match billing, Samoa deserving their early lead.
Just over half an hour had passed when Tonga made good use of a period in the Samoan red zone, SioSiua Taukeiaho going through a small gap to score from close in. Isiaya Katoa was on target with the kick, Tonga trailing by 10-12. All that separated the sides at the interval was a missed conversion.
Samoa had the best of the opening exchanges of the second half but after getting a penalty on forty-eight minutes Tonga pointed to the sticks and Katoa kicked the penalty to level the scores.
It was impossible to pick a winner in the most brutal of games.
It was Samoa´s turn to kick for goal after they were awarded a penalty on fifty-five, thirty-five from the sticks. Crichton found the target and edged his side back into a two-point lead.
Samoa added a four pointer on fifty-eight when Tonga failed to deal with a cross-field kick, Brian To´o on hand to collect in an ocean of space and take one step over the line for a simple touch down. Crichton added the extras and Samoa were again eight points clear, Tonga with a lot of work to do to save their World Cup.
A fast play the ball and break by Mosese Suli saw him past half-way and pass back inside to Sione Katoa to spring forty metres and score under the posts for Tonga. Isiaya Katoa added the extras, the Samoa lead back to just two points with eight minutes remaining. It was going down to the wire.
Tonga had their chances in the dying minutes but brilliant Samoan defence kept them out to take the win by the narrowest of margins.
The game lived up to its ´Game of the Tournament´ billing and had everything that you could want in a, no quarter asked or given, game of rugby league, a brilliant advert for the game and the competition and hopefully an indication of what is to come in the semi-finals.
Samoa have made it to their first ever World Cup semi-final and will face England on Saturday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium in London, hoping that they can give a much better performance than they did in the group match which saw they destroyed by Shaun Wane´s side. Kristian Woolf´s Tonga disappointed on the afternoon and didn´t live up to their favourites tag after giving Samoa too much too much territory, and too much respect.
Tonga: Hopoate, Tupou (T), Penisini, Suli, Katoa S (T), Katoa I (2G), Lolohea, Fonua-Blake, Havili, Fotuaika, Kaufisi, Kolomatangi, Tauimalolo. Subs: Luke, Taukeiaho (T), Murdoch-Masila, Fifita.
Samoa: Suaali´Ii, To´o (T), Crichton (4G), Lafai, May, Luai (T), Milford, Hunt, Levi, Paulo, Sao, Su´a (T), Kaufusi. Subs: Harris-Tavita, Papali´i, Tuilagi, Taupa´u.
Score Progression: 0-4, 0-6, 4-6, 4-10, 4-12, 8-12, 10-12 : HT : 12-12, 12-14, 12-18, 12-20, 16-20, 18-20 : FT .
Lead Exchanges: Samoa – Square - Samoa.
Referee: Ashley Klein.
Attendance: 12,674 at the Halliwell-Jones Stadium, Warrington.