Tom Johnstone’s second-half double sealed a rugged 22-18 win for England in the first of their three-match autumn Test series against Tonga in St Helens.
The Catalans Dragons winger had been almost anonymous in the first half but pounced on a pair of chances – the first a sublime floated pass from captain Jack Welsby – as the hosts pulled clear in the second period.
An impressive debut from Hull KR stand-off Mikey Lewis, who made then scored one before the break, also contributed to an encouraging afternoon for Shaun Wane’s men who were still forced to live on their nerves in the final stages.
😍 Two for @TomJohnstone01!
— England Rugby League (@England_RL) October 22, 2023
A late try from Tolutau Koula threatened to set up a grandstand finish but England held on for the win in what was their first serious test since last year’s heartbreaking World Cup semi-final exit.
Tonga, boasting a side bristling with NRL talent, had themselves been looking to recover from a disappointing World Cup and deservedly reached the half-time hooter all-square at 12-12.
But it was the hosts who had made the first move and it took Lewis just eight minutes of his international bow to make an impact as his superb break set up a move that swung left through Victor Radley for Toby King to trot over on the left.
Harry Smith kicked England six clear but Tonga fought back after capitalising on a penalty for a ball steal, Saints’ Will Hopoate providing the decisive pass in a move that sent Wests Tigers’ Starford To’a in on the right edge.
Tonga went in front in the 25th minute when the second of their England-based starters, Huddersfield’s Tui Lolohea, delivered a neat kick for Tyson Frizell, who started his international career with Wales over a decade ago, to dart onto.
Isaiya Katoa’s first successful conversion lifted Tonga, backed by a boisterous band of fans behind the posts, into a four-point lead, before superb solo effort from Lewis, who wriggled through an imposing Tongan rearguard, levelled once again.
Harry Smith curled over the conversion to nudge England in front and Katoa responded with a penalty in front of the posts just before the half-time hooter.
Tonga were clearly growing in confidence, evidenced by the lively Keaon Koloamatangi, who produced an audacious offload to find space for Will Penisini, then bulled inches from the England where he was stopped by a timely Harry Smith tackle.
As the action warmed up, Johnstone’s hopes of a breakthrough were brutally stopped by Hopoate, then the action swung to the other end where To’a was ushered out of play as the visitors threatened again.
Welsby’s brilliance thrust England back in front after 55 minutes when he floated a perfectly-judged pass above the heads of three Tongan players to gift Johnstone the simplest of chances to get off the mark.
And a swift second from the Catalans man, when he pounced to intercept after a fumble by Penisini on the Tongan 40, left the fleet-footed Catalans star to race in under the posts from where’s Smith’s simplest conversion extended England’s lead to 22-12.
Tom Burgess was adjudged to have been held up over the line as England looked to finish the contest off but Tonga set up an anxious last two minutes when Tolutau Koula went over on the left, as if to serve as a timely reminder of two further bruising challenges to come.