AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Australia crushed the hopes of a nation — and its watching king — when it beat Tonga 34-16 Saturday in their first rugby league test encounter.
More than 26,000 Tonga fans — expatriate representatives of a Pacific Island nation with a population of only 104,000 — watched the match at Auckland's Mount Smart Stadium. Tongan King George Tupou VI was among the supporters.
Tonga's expectations had been raised by reaching the semifinals at last year's Rugby League World Cup in New Zealand, and it hoped to become the first Tier Two nation in 40 years to beat the world champion Kangaroos.
Reality set in when try scoring doubles by Tom Trbojevic and Valentine Holmes gave Australia a 30-10 lead by halftime.
Tonga completed fewer than 20 percent of its tackle sets in the first half, handing the advantage to Australia which was coming off a 26-24 loss to New Zealand last weekend. The Kangaroos' recovery was led from halfback by Daly Cherry-Evans, who scored and had a hand in several tries.
Tonga produced a more competitive second half, increasing its control of possession, but was unable to bridge the gap in the face of solid defense.
"I think we didn't play too bad but the discipline let us down," Tonga captain Sika Manu said. "We were just glad to have the chance to compete against them and hopefully we'll get more games against them in the future."
Australia captain Boyd Cordner, who has played in NRL and World Cup finals, was impressed by Tonga's fans, who sang the Australia national anthem as a mark of respect for the Kangaroos.
"Look at this, you couldn't ask for anything better," Cordner said. "For us it's a new-look team ... I think that showed tonight but as time goes on we'll get better as a group."
Australia started strongly and Cherry-Evans scored its first try after only six minutes and Trbojevic touched down five minutes later, making the lead 12-0.
Tonga struck back with a try to Tevita Pangai Junior but Australia surged further ahead with tries to Trbojevic and Valentine Holmes.
A try to Daniel Tupou kept Tonga in the match, though Australia ended the first half clearly on top with a second try to Holmes.
Tonga dominated the third quarter, scoring through Solomone Kata to cut the lead to 30-16. Australia was still in control, however, and it clinched its win with a try to fullback James Tedesco.
Australia 34 (Tom Trbojevic 2, Valentine Holmes 2, Daly Cherry-Evans, James Tedesco tries; Valentine Holmes 5 goals), Tonga 16 (Tevita Pangai Junior, Daniel Tupou, Solomone Kata tries; Sio Siua Taukaiaho 2 goals). HT: 30-10.