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Samoa shade Tonga thriller
Success over Ireland will see Samoans through
An inspirational performance from the Bradford Bulls second rower who was outstanding both in defence and attack.
Samoa took Pacific Island bragging rights as they shaded a thrilling contest with fierce rivals Tonga, emerging 20-12 victors after a predictably ferocious encounter in Penrith.
The Samoans raced into an early 10-0 lead courtesy of tries from St Helens winger Francis Meli and skipper Nigel Vagana.
But Tonga fought back admirably and hit the front after converted scores of their own from Michael Jennings and Tevita Leo-Latu.
Samoa responded again and were in front at the interval as Matt Utai touched down in the corner and a solitary score from George Carmont in a breathless second half was enough to seal a victory that will see them progress from Group C provided they beat Ireland in their final match.
The scene was set for a no-holds-barred encounter as the two teams squared up for their respective ceremonial war dances before kick-off, whipping up the large, vocal crowd inside the CUA Stadium.
It was Samoa who channelled the early adrenaline better as they took advantage of an error from Tonga's Feleti Mateo to hit the front with barely two minutes on the clock.
Mateo's wayward offload handed possession to Samoa and, after advancing towards their opponents' line, the ball was spun out wide to the left with Meli stepping inside to finish well after being fed by Carmont.
Ben Roberts missed with the conversion, but he was given another chance just eight minutes later as the Samoans increased their lead.
It came following a period of Tonga pressure, but captain Vagana was on his toes to steal an interception and promptly raced the length of the pitch to score unopposed next to the posts.
This time Roberts was successful with the conversion as his team opened a healthy advantage.
Tonga regrouped and found a way back into the match on 20 minutes following some superb play from hulking back Tony Williams.
A mistake from Lagi Setu had gifted possession back to the Tongans and once the ball found its way to Williams he shrugged off the challenge of Vagana with ease before releasing Michael Jennings who dived over under the posts - Williams added the extras.
Vagana missed a chance to claim his second try of the night as he lost control when going to ground the ball having broken the Tonga defensive line and he was made to pay shortly afterwards as Tonga took the lead.
Hooker Leo-Latu burst on to the ball at dummy half and, after a clever step, crashed his way over from close range despite the attentions of two Samoa defenders, Williams produced a fine kick from out wide to edge his side into the ascendancy at 12-10.
But a cracking opening period ended with Samoa wresting back control, Utai finishing well in the right corner after a sharp pass from Willie Talau had left him one-on-one with Esikeli Tonga.
The frenetic pace was unrelenting after the break but it was Samoa who picked up where they had left off as they dominated territory and possession.
They finally got their reward on 53 minutes with a fourth try that owed much to the industry and vision of the outstanding David Solomona.
In typical style the Bradford Bulls star produced a rampaging run and brilliant offload in the tackle to release Setu. The second rower in turn showed excellent composure, timing an inside pass to Carmont to perfection and the centre galloped over under the posts, allowing Roberts to convert and stretch the lead to 20-12.
Samoa and Carmont thought they had added to the advantage moments later only to see what appeared a valid score chalked off by referee Shane Hayne for an illegal scrum.
Although they remained in control, the Samoans were unable to extend their cushion as a mixture of poor finishing and desperate defending kept them at bay.
Tonga did rally to produce a final push, but unable to penetrate the blue wall in front of them their hopes evaporated with a couple of late spills of the ball and Samoa held on for a memorable, and ultimately deserved, victory.