The 2017 World Cup provided a fantastic advertisement for the myriad joys of watching rugby league, featuring ferocious battles, shock results and the closest final in decades.
Australia won their 11th title in 15 tournaments to further cement their dominance over the sport, but a valiant performance from England in the final made things interesting. Meanwhile, Tonga lit up the tournament with their on-field heroics and colourful support, and neutrals were treated to several enthralling clashes. Here are the top five moments from a memorable World Cup:
- The unstoppable Sipi Tau meets the immoveable Siva Tau
Tonga’s Sipi Tau and Samoa’s Siva Tau are each momentous displays of passion, intimidation and cultural heritage, enough to whip up frenzy inside a stadium. But when performed simultaneously they created a positively spine-tingling atmosphere.
The two island nations clashed in Hamilton’s Waikato Stadium, which was packed to the rafters with boisterous fans, and the teams decided to perform their war dances in unison. The Samoans began clapping to get the fans on their feet, and the Tongans threw down the gauntlet from across the pitch. The ferocious dance-off took place for two-and-a-half minutes as the fans went berserk and the Waikato Stadium became a cauldron of raucous noise.
Tonga earned a 32-18 victory, but what happened before the game reverberated around the world. The players knew they had been part of something special and linked up for a prolonged post-match huddle as supporters wept.
- Valentine breaks Fijian hearts
Australia winger Valentine Holmes was undoubtedly the star of the show at the 2017 World Cup. He became the first player to ever score five tries in a World Cup game when he put Samoa to the sword in the quarter-final, leading his team to a 46-0 rout.
That performance was astounding, but then he went one better in the semis, setting a new World Cup record with six tries against Fiji. That was the first time an Australian player had bagged six tries in a single match since Ken Irving against Italy in the 1960s, but that was not even a Test match, let alone a World Cup semi-final.
Holmes crossed 12 times in total over the course of the tournament, eclipsing the record set by Wendell Sailor in 2000. At just 22 years of age the future looks extremely bright for this extremely talented winger. He might even give the Sharks an outside chance in the NRL betting.
- A genuinely tense final
Australia have made a habit of steamrollering teams in the World Cup final: they played New Zealand in the previous three and won comfortably each time, including a 34-2 thumping in 2013. Given the outstanding form of Holmes and the crushing nature of their victories up to that point, the Kangaroos were expected to trounce England in the decider. But kudos to the English for making a game of it.
The final was not exactly full of thrills, but it was a tense, nervy affair. England’s defence remained resilient throughout, breached just once as Boyd Cordner crashed through to make it 6-0. Australia dominated but England had their chances and almost seized glory when Leeds centre Kallum Watkins broke through, only to be denied by Josh Dugan’s magnificent lunging ankle tap.
It was a titanic battle of brutal intensity and it showed that England can be a force to be reckoned with in future tournaments, which can only be a good thing for Australia as it should keep them on their toes.
- England withstand late Tonga pressure
The semi-final played out by England and Tonga culminated in a nerve-shredding finale. England were in control for 73 minutes and were cruising to the final, leading 20-0 and feeling supremely comfortable. Then Tonga exploded into life. Tevita Pangai Junior crashed over the line to give the Tongan fans something to cheer, but they went positively wild when Siliva Havili made it 20-12. Two minutes later, England’s advantage was reduced to just two points as Tuimoala Lolohea scored another try, and Tonga were suddenly within one score of a maiden World Cup final.
The partisan crowd roared them on and Andrew Fifita looked like he had won it for Tonga at the death, only to see his try ruled out. Cue a gigantic sigh of relief for England. It was a breathtaking end to the match and Tonga could leave with their heads held high.
- Tonga topple New Zealand
Before meeting England, Tonga pulled off a huge upset by overwhelming New Zealand in one of the greatest matches in World Cup history.
It started off with another spine-chilling showdown as the Haka met the Sipi Tau, but this time events during the game eclipsed the pre-match challenges. Tonga also found themselves in real trouble in this game, 16-2 down at half-time thanks to strong work from Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rapana and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. But they hit back in stunning fashion after the break, scoring four quick tries in a phenomenally dominant display.
David Fusitu’a was the star of the show, scoring a brilliant hat-trick, with the final one cancelling out a late second try from Tuivasa-Sheck to seal a 28-22 victory. This was the game of the tournament and it created history as it was the first time a tier-two nation got the better of a top tier country.
It was a fantastic achievement for a team made up of players born in Australia and New Zealand, and it vindicated decisions from the likes of Fifita, Fusitu’a, Jason Taumalolo, Manu Ma’u and Sio Siua Taukeiaho to represent their motherland, as they topped their group, beat Lebanon in the quarters and almost made the final after giving England the fright of their lives.