Tonga World Cup hopes halted by Georgian grunt

Spread the love

Gloucester rose this morning to a layer of fog that threatened to subdue the second game of the World Cup. Fortunately by the time the teams lined up and Tonga had performed the Sipi Tau the sun had burst through and set the conditions perfectly for the opening game of Pool C.  From my position in the main stand I spotted supporters of no less than half the Aviva Premiership sides, as well as local Cherry and White fans, reinforcing the tournament’s buzzword “inclusive.”  The atmosphere was vibrant, the stadium was transformed for the global stage and the crowd was perfectly hyped for kick-off.

Tonga World Cup hopes halted by Georgian grunt

Sadly the display of national pride was about as good as it got for Tonga. An early huge hit by skipper Nili Latu was reciprocated on scrum half Sonatane Takulua. A burst from winger Fetu’u Vainikolo sparked the game into life but the first advantage was notched by the Georgian forwards, winning the first penalty at scrum time.  It was a first quarter of massive tackles, mostly audible to fans in the stands, and stop start rugby caused by basic errors. After an exchange of penalties Tonga showed the desire to run the ball and get it out of the forwards, but Georgia exerted impressive defensive pressure to force turnovers whenever the Pacific Islanders threatened.

This game promised a physical battle, and it certainly delivered; a mazy run by winger Giorgi Aptsiauri was halted like a car driving into a brick wall by skipper Latu was testament to that. The Georgians weathered the early storm to assert their physicality and from nowhere found themselves in the Tongan 22, and a few strong pick and drives saw captain Mamuka Gorgodze reach over the line under the posts for the opening try. The collection of lively Georgian fans in the main stand behind me were ecstatic. Full back Kvirikashvili converted for 10-3. Tonga were too loose in possession, knocking on or losing lineouts, to gain any dominance or territory. The Eastern Europeans adopted a Fiji-style rush defence and stifled the Tongan attack, although it wasn’t overly tested thanks to basic errors made by the men in red. The half time team talks may have been different had a well worked Tonga try from a lineout just before half time not been ruled out for a forward pass.

A quick word for referee Nigel Owens, who appeared vastly superior to Jaco Peyper from the opening game with minimal use of the TMO and clear decision-making that kept the game running fairly smoothly.

The second half began in much the same vein, with further errors made by Tonga that prevented them building any serious pressure, despite valiant efforts by captain Latu or a good turnover by local favourite Sione Kalamafoni. Georgia continued to take hold of the game through the forwards, preventing Tonga from getting the ball out wide and using their superior wide play. I said in my preview the backs may make the difference, but that didn’t account for such control in the forwards. Led by Gorgodze, who made 27 tackles on the day, Georgia were simply brilliant at shutting the door and not allowing their opponents from gaining any momentum, with three men regularly meeting one Tongan ball carrier. The 14,200 strong crowd at Kingsholm began to rally around the Eastern Europeans; the tide was shifting. A huge wave then engulfed Tonga,  with a scrappy attack ending in an easy run-in for flanker Giorgi Tkhilaishvili in the corner.

The ‘Ikale Tahi became desperate, offloads didn’t go to hand and phases were far too slow and static. Georgia were able to easily absorb the pressure and force several more turnovers, a pattern of the afternoon. I wondered whether the blitz defence and big hits would begin to tire beyond the hour, but they didn’t. Georgia refreshed their pack with fresh legs but the work rate continued. It took until the 71st minute for Tonga to finally score a try through Fetu’u Vainikolo, which Kurt Morath converted for a grandstand finish. Fullback Kvirikashvili was yellow carded for the rest of the game and it was all set for a dramatic comeback. Georgia had the chance to settle the nerves with a penalty with five minutes left, but with their kicker in the sin bin for the rest of the game the opportunity was missed.

It was a fitting end then that Tonga lost the chance to draw level by throwing a wonky line out and losing the resulting scrum, summing up their miserable day at the office. The delight of the Georgia team at the full time whistle was brilliant to see, and I look forward to seeing them again at Kingsholm next Friday against Argentina. For the Pacific Islanders, a vast improvement is needed for them to compete against the Pumas and the All Blacks in the weeks to come. They were simply not ready for the collective effort and power that the Eastern Europeans were able to maintain for the full 80 minutes, and they may not be the only ones.