Irish come up just short
Blanch hat-trick in vain as Tonga edge thriller
Last Updated: 27/10/08 12:38pm
Jennings celebrates his score
Ireland narrowly failed to cause a huge World Cup upset on Monday, going down 22-20 to Tonga in a thrilling Group C encounter in Parramatta.
The Irish Wolfhounds went into the match as massive underdogs but more than held their own and will look back at several opportunities to clinch a famous win.
Wakefield's Damien Blanch scored a hat-trick of tries while Michael Platt added a first half score but a try from Esikeli Tonga seven minutes from the end was enough to give Tonga the points.
English referee Steve Ganson awarded 10 first-half penalties to Ireland and, after losing his patience, sent winger Tonga to the sin bin on 23 minutes for laying on in the tackle.
And the Irish capitalised on the extra man, scoring all 10 of their first half points during that time after Penrith centre Michael Jennings had crossed early on for a star-studded Tonga.
Centre Etuate Uaisele dropped the ball with the line at his mercy and had another effort disallowed by video referee Paul Simpkins, but the Irish regained their composure to begin their fightback with captain Scott Grix sending winger Blanch over at the corner.
That gave Andy Kelly's men just the encouragement they needed and they produced their best rugby of the match to carve out a splendid try for full-back Platt, who finished off a break by scrum-half Karl Fitzpatrick.
Winger Pat Richards, returning to his home-town club Parramatta, added the conversion to put Ireland 10-6 ahead and they should have extended the lead when Richards helped create another overlap but centre Sean Gleeson's pass to an unmarked Blanch went into touch.
But Platt soon became the villain of the piece as he failed to clear a speculative kick from scrum-half Joel Taufa'ao and winger Cooper Vuna pounced for a soft try that levelled the scores.
Taufa'ao missed the conversion but kicked a penalty on the stroke of half-time to edge his side back in front.
Richards went agonisingly close to touching down Fitzpatrick's high kick early in the second half before Tonga once more gave their opponents a helping hand with Mateo's sin-binning.
A superb pass out of the tackle by Gleeson got Blanch over for his second try but Tonga looked to have secured the victory when they kept the ball alive superbly on the last tackle, and Uaisele scored the try of the match.
With Taufa'ao off the pitch, substitute Tony Williams added the conversion to make it 18-14 but the drama continued when Jennings had a try disallowed and Blanch gathered Brendan Finn's kick to complete his hat-trick.
Richards' touchline conversion edged the Irish back in front but their hearts were broken when Mateo forced a 40-20 kick and made the telling pass for Tonga to score the all-important try.