Final in touching distance for fast-starting England
Tongans could struggle to match Lions forwards
Rugby League World Cup semi-final
BBC2, 5am Saturday
Just eighty minutes separate England from a first Rugby League World Cup final since 1995 as they prepare for a semi-final showdown with Tonga on Saturday morning.
Many expected it would be old adversaries New Zealand facing Wayne Bennett’s men in Auckland but the Kiwis’ spectacular demise at the hands of Fiji in the last eight means England will have few better chances of reaching the world showpiece.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing, however.
England’s best 80-minute performance was arguably in their opening 18-4 defeat to Australia with three scratchy, if comfortable, victories since showcasing, in the words of Bennett: “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
And fans who set their alarm clocks to watch the match should expect pistols at dawn with Tonga, spurred on by a partisan crowd, promising to match fire with fire in a bid to nullify the threat of England’s powerhouse pack.
Alongside the back three of Gareth Widdop, Jermaine McGillvary and Ryan Hall, the Lions’ forwards have starred in the tournament, making impressive yardage and restricting their four opponents to just seven tries in total – of which the Aussies notched three.
As expected, the question has been how well England’s half-backs would build on the platform laid by their forwards to create cutting edge opportunities.
England’s play has been much more cohesive since Kevin Brown came into the fold at stand-off in their final group game against France.
The Warrington playmaker is a slight doubt having been taken off at half-time last week due to concussion but Bennett expects him, and other doubt Sam Burgess, to be fully fit for the Tongan challenge.
Tonga’s rise to prominence has undoubtedly been the story of this World Cup. Bolstered by seven New Zealanders and Australian Andrew Fifita pledging their allegiance to their cause, the Mate Ma’a announced their status as the best of the tier-two nations with an emotional victory over New Zealand to top Group B.
However, while that effort grabbed the attention of the rugby league world it could ultimately prove their downfall.
Tonga looked extremely tired in their fortuitous 24-22 quarter-final victory over Lebanon, in which the Cedars had three tries chalked off.
England have invariably been at their best over the first 40 minutes and it would be no surprise to see them quick out of the blocks again as they look to seize the initiative.
And if they get ahead, they should be confident that their strong defence can secure them a spot in Brisbane next week.
England-England double result
2pts 11-10 Coral, Ladbrokes
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