England withstand stunning Tonga fightback to reach final
England breathed a sigh of relief as they advanced to their first Rugby League World Cup final since 1995 with a jaw-dropping 20-18 victory after Tonga mounted a stunning comeback on Saturday.
Wayne Bennett's England looked to be cruising towards a blockbuster showdown with reigning champions Australia in Brisbane next Saturday, leading 20-0 with 12 minutes remaining thanks to tries from Jermaine McGillvary, Gareth Widdop and John Bateman in Auckland.
But Tonga - who progressed beyond the group stage for the first time - turned the match on its head, scoring three unanswered try in the space of five minutes to make it a two-point game.
England, however, somehow survived to move through to the decider against co-hosts the Kangaroos in a controversial ending after Andrew Fifita lost possession when Elliot Whitehead looked to have stripped the ball. The towering Tongan regathered and scored the try but the referee called it a knock-on.
A rousing rendition of the Tonga national anthem rang out in front of a sea of red at Mt Smart Stadium before Jason Taumalolo led the Mate Ma'a war dance.
The big and vocal Tonga contingent, however, were silenced early when McGillvary crossed over.
The winger made it seven tries in five games after finishing off a simple catch-and-pass play which created an overlap on the right in the 12th minute.
That sparked Tonga into action in an absorbing and end-to-end contest but England moved 12-0 ahead five minutes later.
After Tonga almost drew level, England went up the other end and scored a second try, this time via Widdop, who was cleared of a double movement before he also nailed his second conversion.
England carried that lead into the second half, which required an immense defensive effort as Tonga - roared on by the crowd - threw everything at Bennett's men.
Tonga's slim hopes were seemingly dashed in the 68th minute when Bateman sliced over to score England's third try and Widdop added the extras.
Tevita Pangai Junior barged over to give Tonga fans something to celebrate with what appeared to be nothing more than a consolation five minutes later.
However, no one predicted what was to come as Tonga almost pulled off the impossible after Siliva Havili and Tui Lolohea went over in quick succession with England rattled.
There was to be a cruel conclusion for rampant Tonga, who felt Fifita's last-gasp score - which was ruled out - should have been referred to the video referee as England just about held on.