England cannot afford to doze off against Tonga, says Phil Clarke

Phil Clarke pays tribute to the brilliant Tongans as he looks ahead to the Rugby League semi-finals where Australia take on Fiji and England face Tonga.

The tournament came alive last weekend – even though England’s performance almost put me back to sleep!

They need to be much better this week. We’ve got two sensational semi-finals ahead though – first up, David vs Goliath, in the guise of Fiji vs Australia. In ‘Rocky’ terms, this casts Jarryd Hayne as Sylvester Stallone’s eponymous hero – can he help knock out the overwhelming favourites?

It’s a shame that the rules of rugby league make giant-killing pretty rare: the simplicity of our sport means that the fastest, strongest team usually wins – but you never know.

With his charisma, presence, and leadership skills, Mal Meninga seems to have improved the Australian side – his aura alone appears to have lifted the Kangaroos to an even higher level. A Bati win would probably be the biggest shock in rugby league history.

As for Saturday’s main event, the bookmakers appear to believe England will win narrowly – but expect a tight contest. Tonga are probably the smallest nation to make a World Cup semi-final in any sport, ever; the islands’ combined population is roughly equivalent to that of St Helens!

Tonga have a great rugby league heritage – one of my favourites was former Widnes forward Emosi Koloto, the first Tongan I ever saw play. With superb ball-handling skills and creative talent, he was a crowd favourite for Chemics and opposition fans alike. In a land where rugby union is the national sport, other famous Tongan names down the years have included plenty of All Blacks and Wallabies, among them Jonah Lomu, Israel Folau – and even Taulupe Faletau, currently a Welsh rugby union international.

Some of their most athletic men have also gone on to play American Football in the NFL – despite a relatively small national talent pool, there’s a formidable team facing England on Saturday. In Daniel Tupou, Andrew Fifita, Michael Jennings and the phenomenal Jason Taumalolo, Kristian Woolf has players who can be world class on their day. Polynesian folklore has it that Tongan god, Maui, pulled the islands from the ocean with a fish hook; it could be argued North Queensland superstar Taumalolo has similar strength! Stopping him is England’s number one priority.

I might be watching from the other side of the world – but, in truth, I haven’t yet seen any impact from Wayne Bennett on this England side. In fact, his players appear to be performing at a lower standard than at club level. Gareth Widdop has played stand-off all season – now he’s playing full-back in a World Cup semi-final. It begs the question, do positions really matter? And – if not – does training?

In front of Mount Smart’s biggest crowd in years – with 30,000 frenzied Tongan supporters, including King Tupou VI, expected to attend – I expect Jermaine McGillvary to again be England’s best player; he’s been awesome this tournament. Tonga is 13 hours ahead of the UK – let’s just hope we’re not still dozing at kick-off. Otherwise, it could be the greatest day in Tongan history since Maui and his fish hook.

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