Canada turned in a cracker of a performance to upset the odds and break the hearts of a Tongan team who failed to take advantage of a strong second-half wind.
In what was an absorbing and entertaining match between two of the lesser lights of world rugby, the Canadians showed a great big bucket of grit to take the game away from the Tongans with a late Phil MacKenzie score. The winger’s try, converted by fullback James Pritchard, came six minutes from time and ensured a tightly wound endgame. It put the Canadians ahead by five points, beyond the reach of a Tongan goalkick.
The Tongan hordes stormed up the park to try and grab a late try to keep themselves in with a shout of qualifying, but the Canucks just kept on throwing themselves in the way. This was real bodies-on-the-line stuff. Man of the Match Adam Kleeburger – sporting a hell of a woodsman’s beard, a real Unabomber special – led the defense, but he was just one of a number of Canadian heroes.
Though Canada had started the game well, they suffered the loss of two key forwards before halftime: hooker and captain Pat Riordan and openside Chauncey O’Toole. The Ospreys-bound O’Toole was a huge loss – he has won the Sky Sports ‘Man of the Series’ award in the last two editions of the Churchill Cup [following on from Leinster & Ireland’s Fergus McFadden in 2009], and is a perennial Man of the Match candidate whenever Canada take the field.
After their departure but shortly before halftime, the Tongans were able to work the ball through a whole heap of phases in the Canadian half. They finally sent their big centre Siale Piutau turning round the back of the posts for a try right in the middle of Matty Williams’ championship minutes … a crushing thirty seconds before the break. That made it 10-7 to Canada at half-time, but the Tongans pegged it back within a couple of minutes of the restart. With a strong wind at their backs, they looked to have the advantage in the second period.
Kleeburger & Co stepped up to the plate in a huge way and met the bigger and stronger Tongans head-on. Despite their efforts, Tonga increased their lead to seven points through another goaled Piutau try and a Kurt Morath penalty. With fifteen minutes left on the clock, they looked to be in pole position to win the game. However, Canuck No8 Carpenter got over for an unconverted try on sixty-six minutes to leave the Canadians trailing by just two points. They went for broke after that, and MacKenzie grabbed the winner, Leaving Cert sun-holiday haircut and all. P-A-R-T-A-Y!
The Tongans were heartbroken at the end, the poor bastards. It had been a back-and-forth encounter, but they probably always thought they were going to be on the winning side at the end of it. Still, captain Finau Maka was magnanimous in defeat and insisted that the better team had won – a class act, you could see he that he was gutted.