BIG-TIME rugby returned to Kingston Park last night, Newcastle Falcons putting the North East game firmly back on the map by blowing away the pace and power of the Tongan national team.
It was one of those nights to say ‘I was there’, and those who were will not forget it in a hurry.
A season dominated by routine roll-overs against Championship cannon fodder was always going to go up a notch against a Tongan team beaten by just five points against Italy three days earlier, although only one of that starting XV survived as the Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) rang the changes.
Newcastle, too, opted to freshen up their selection in search of game-time for fringe figures, and there was no hint of a friendly as the Tongans got the crowd going before kick-off with their throat-slitting, head-ripping war dance, the Sipi Tau.
Such was the clamour for a glimpse of the South Sea islanders the start was delayed to pack all 3,389 supporters in, and the big-match atmosphere was back with a bang in this season of second-tier sporting fayre.
The class of the opposition told as early as five minutes in with Uamano Fono touching down in the right corner – the Tarbes No 8 rampaging over in the right corner after a dominant five-metre scrum.
Tongans live for the collision, and their thirst for contact was all too apparent as a barrage of big hits and carries had Newcastle in retreat.
Both sides entered into the midweek spirit by spurning shots at goal, and a resurgent Falcons were rewarded for their increasing say over proceedings when Scott MacLeod burst around the fringes of a close-range ruck to dot down in the left corner.
Joel Hodgson’s conversion snuck his side in front, and with the home side getting the nudge in the scrum it was shaping up to be an absolute belter.
James Fitzpatrick’s route-one running provided another robust angle to an already fascinating contest, one that provided a reminder of how far the Falcons still have to go despite swatting all before them in the Championship.
Nonetheless they went at the breakdown like a dog at broth, Hodgson managed the gain-line admirably and some of the handling was a different class to what they have shown in league action.
Grant Shiells at loose-head prop demonstrated the form which last week earned him a call-up to the Scotland training squad, and a 7-5 half-time lead was due reward for their efforts.
Tonga wiped that away three minutes after the restart through fly-half Eddie Paea’s well-struck penalty, but the Falcons kept their wings flapping as Chris York and Hodgson both got themselves in behind the defence.
Andy Higgins searched eagerly for work out wide, but it was from the deep dark confines of the front-row that the score finally emerged as referee Sean Davey signalled a penalty try from a mighty five-metre scrum.
With the game now well and truly open, a peach of a third try arrived on the hour, Ryan Shortland’s fleeting counter and Alex Tait’s jinking support line freeing up Mark Wilson for a picture-book run-in at the South Stand end.
Fitzpatrick scurried down the right touchline in search of a fourth to no avail, but prolonged pressure from the Tongans in Newcastle’s 22 finally told in the dying minutes as Bristol’s Will Helu slid in for a try down the right.
Nobody wanted it to end, such was the entertainment, and players’ cramping limbs were testament to a contest in which no energy was left in reserve.
Hodgson’s penalty offered a momentary breather and the chance for five late replacements to join the fray, earning their 30 seconds of action before the final whistle prompted a standing ovation for both sets of players.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, A Higgins, A Crockett, J Fitzpatrick (J Helleur, 68), R Shortland, J Hodgson (W Luveniyali, 78), W Fury (J Pasqualin, 78); G Shiells (J Hallam, 78), M Thompson (M Mayhew, 68), J Hall (S Wilson, 78), S Tomes, J Goode, S MacLeod (J Robinson, 78), M Wilson, C York.
Scorers – Tries: S MacLeod, Penalty try, M Wilson. Conversions: J Hodgson 3. Penalties: J Hodgson
TONGA: S Lu’au (V Lilo, 64), M Malupo, W Helu, A Fatafehi, A Ma’afu, E Paea, V Iongi; S Tonga’uiha (S Taumalolo, 56), A Lutui (K Sakalia, 68), T Mailau, J Afu, S Timani (S Masina, 56), H T-Pole, N Latu (captain), U Fono (S Vaiomounga, 68).
Scorers – Tries: U Fono, W Helu. Penalties: E Paea.
Referee: S Davey Attendance: 3,389