#RLWC2017 Tonga v NZ primer – Their Finest Hour
In the build-up to this week’s RLWC2017 blockbuster pool game between New Zealand and Tonga, here’s an exclusive excerpt from Their Finest Hour when the two teams played out a thriller in 1995.
Chapter 7, ‘Just pray it misses’
To illustrate Mike McClennan’s passion for rugby league, you need to go back to one Saturday afternoon in the late 1980s in Auckland. He was coaching the senior Mt Albert side, which played in the city’s domestic competition. As he took his players into the dressing room and opened the door, out gushed an ocean of water. Those young upstarts who played earlier in the day had left the changing rooms in a watery mess. A furious McClennan decided to take quick action. He stormed upstairs to the boardroom of Auckland Rugby League’s headquarters. There, he helped himself to the room’s carpet, angrily ripping squares of it up, enough to cover the changing room floor. No team of his would have to sit in a room with their boots soaking wet.
McClennan’s players always came first, whether they were juniors, senior club or international teams. It was this single-mindedness – and intensity – that made him the perfect coach to bring out the passion and skill of the new Tongan side.
McClennan only got into coaching when his son Brian started playing. He coached Mt Albert, winning four grand finals in the 1980s, then had successful stints in England with St Helens and Wigan.
McClennan had been around underdog teams for many years: Mt Albert and Northcote weren’t favoured to win their competitions. Tonga were 250–1 outsiders going into their first World Cup. So what was his secret in moulding teams together so quickly?
“I place punctuality and attendance as very important. The Tongan boys were amazing – all of them. Even things like helping old ladies with their bags, acting properly around others was really good. The manager of the hotel we stayed in told me they were the best behaved of any team he’d ever seen.”
In front of a small but vocal crowd of just over 8,000 at England’s Warrington Stadium, New Zealand got ready to play Tonga for the first time. Tonga had a trump card up their sleeve besides McClennan, though: Duane Mann, the former Kiwi (twenty-nine Tests between 1989 and 1994), who was deemed surplus to New Zealand’s World Cup squad in 1995. Mann had played more than a hundred games for Warrington in the past few years and had a good knowledge of English conditions. Frank Endacott still shakes his head in sadness when recalling the circumstances that led to his axing from the Kiwis.
“I pencilled in Duane as my hooker and captain for the World Cup before I went into the selection meeting. There were three selectors involved at that time. By the end of it, Duane wasn’t even in the team, let alone being the captain. I remember telling him after that meeting and it gives me shivers even today when I think about it. Duane was a really decent man and a great player. From that moment on, I made sure I was the sole selector so that type of incident couldn’t happen again.”
Tonga in effect gained three players with Mann: captain, hooker and general-play kicker. McClennan was delighted with his new addition.
“Duane was very, very good, a standout operator,” McClennan remembered. “He had a strong technical understanding of the game. Duane knew Warrington Stadium well – he had played for them over the last three to five years – and knew every blade of grass by first name.”
Along with Mann, Solomon Haumono, Angelo Dymock and George Mann, the Tongans weren’t short of pluck or inspiration.
McClennan felt Kiwis fullback Matthew Ridge’s tendency to stand close to his teammates in defence rather than drop back in anticipation for a long kick was a weakness. So, skipper Mann kicked early in the Tongan’s tackle count, causing the New Zealanders to fatigue quicker by turning and chasing. The Tongans would then work hard in defence, giving the opposition halves pairing little time or space to move. The tactic started to pay o in a big way.
Led by Duane Mann, Tonga managed to score a number of tries in the second half and the Kiwis looked sloppy when replying. New Zealand needed thirteen points in ten minutes to win. Centre Richie Blackmore later recalled feeling truly terrified at the prospect of losing and questioned whether he and his Kiwi teammates would be let back into New Zealand, such was the potential backlash if they lost that night.
New Zealand suddenly woke up. It was as if someone slapped a huge sh across the face of every player in a black jersey at once. The Kiwis got possession back and managed a sweeping back-line move, finishing with replacement Hitro Okesene crashing over for a try in the corner. Ridge’s quick but accurate conversion made it 18–24. There were six minutes left. What happened next is shrouded in controversy but still makes for a good story.
Tonga ended up with a scrum in their own half. It was at this point that McClennan put the call out to his team to slow the game down. Angelo Dymock stayed down after a tackle for a few minutes. This was supposed to frustrate the opposition and make them more likely to make a mistake. As Dymock was getting helped back to his feet, referee David Campbell seemingly lost count of how many tackles Tonga had left. Instead of their full five tackles, at the third tackle there was a clear call of ‘last tackle’.
Frank Endacott swears that it was one of his own players who said it. Whatever happened, Tonga kicked from the next play and therefore missed out on another two tackles, as well as giving New Zealand a better eld position to attack from. From the ensuing set, Henry Paul managed a nice offload, with Sean Hoppe, Kevin Iro and finally Richie Blackmore finishing the movement for a try. Ridge converted and the scores were now tied at 24-all with a minute to play. The captain then calmly potted over a drop goal to get the Kiwis a 25–24 victory. Tony Iro shook his head in equal parts disbelief and relief.
That night, the Tongans hosted a massive party with supporters and players from both teams in celebration for what was one of the great matches, but also for a game symbolising a real World Cup at long last.
**Buy your copy of Their Finest Hour here.