Samoa’s appearance in their first Rugby League World Cup final caps a miraculous comeback.
Simply refer to it as the Battle of Highbury. The Time Ending Classic. Stephen Crichton’s Game Or anything else you want.
How do you even put it into words? Where do you begin? Where do you stop? Let us take a deep breath and try together.
Samoa won one of the greatest World Cup games in history, defeating a tenacious England team 27-26 in London on the strength of Stephen Crichton’s golden point field goal.
It is their first appearance in a World Cup final in either rugby code. They are only the fifth team to do so, and the first from a new country since 1988. Given that they didn’t win a game in the 2017 tournament, it’s one of the greatest achievements in Test football history.
Yes, that is what happened, and that is what this means historically. But aren’t they just words on a screen? The truth is far more significant.
This match swung back and forth so violently that you could break your neck. Any rugby league fan would want to be buried in a coffin made of the last 10 minutes.
The moments were indelible, unforgettable, as both sides traded blows capable of bringing down a city’s walls. For every moment of brilliance from Samoa, such as Crichton’s try off a miraculous Junior Paulo offload and a clever Jarome Luai tap-on, England would respond with Herbie Farnworth smashing through six Samoan defenders close to the line.
Victor Radley’s heartbreaking intercept to Crichton was followed by George Williams, magnificent in defeat, conjuring a long-range score to Farnworth from deep in England’s end.
In 127 years of rugby league, only one Test match had gone to golden point. Tommy Makinson’s clutch conversion guaranteed two.
And in the end, it was Crichton who scored the game-winning field goal, his first of his senior career, and 40,000 fans collapsed in a mass of laughter and tears, sweat and tears. They don’t all look like this. We’d be extinct if they did.
In the end, England was undone by one bad decision in the final seconds and two errors in golden point. If Elliott Whitehead, who was outstanding throughout the game, had held on to the ball after making a break in the final seconds instead of going for an impossible pass to Jack Welsby, England might have had time for a last-second winner and the golden point would not have been required.
The two hammer blows were delivered as extra time began. England survived the first, when Jack Welsby fumbled a pick-up after turning an inside pass to no one. The second, when Sam Tomkins threw a slight forward pass from dummy half, proved fatal, as Crichton scored moments later.
There is no shame in losing this game. But England had so much riding on this World Cup, and the game in this country desperately needed a boost, and playing in a first home final since 1995 would have given the team every chance of defeating Australia in a series or tournament for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Although London is not rugby league country, the people came from the north. They will take those long train rides home knowing, as the English have long understood, that there can be no true despair without hope. England coach Shaun Wane’s near-crying after the game said everything. Their long journey to glory will continue.
Instead, it will be the Samoans who will enter the Theatre of Dreams, battered, bruised, and bloodied but unbroken, with hope in their hearts and history on their minds.
The significance of them facing Australia at Old Trafford cannot be overstated.
Not because they defeated Tonga and England in consecutive weeks – after their stars abandoned the green and golds, Samoa always had the talent to do it.
The style of the two victories was also unsurprising, because when you have players who can run like Joseph Suaali’i and Brian To’o, offload like Junior Paulo, and scheme like Jarome Luai, the game plan pretty much writes itself.
What is difficult to believe is how Samoa rose from the ashes. Its World Cup was in shambles after the last meeting with England, when it conceded 60 points, and this cannot be overstated.
Sixty. The number six zero. Half a century, plus 10. For a team as proud as Samoa and one filled with such talent, it was an embarrassment. Rising from the ashes and reestablishing credibility would have been a worthy goal for the rest of the tournament, let alone reaching the final.
Even after that, the blows kept coming as the adversity piled up. Early on, Izack Tago, Braden Hamlin-Uele, and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow were all injured and ruled out of the tournament. Spencer Leniu was also injured, but he played in the semi-finals anyway because they didn’t have anyone else. Danny Levi, their preferred hooker, returned home this week for personal reasons.
Fa’amanu Brown, their backup, was knocked out cold within the first 15 minutes, forcing Chanel Harris-Tavita, a half by trade, into the fray under heavy pressure.
Ligi Sao, who scored a try in this victory, was not even on the team when the tournament started. Tim Lafai, who scored twice, wasn’t either.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. They discovered something unique, something genuine, something within each other that cannot be purchased and will last forever.
What their stars were attempting to construct when they all returned home to represent their heritage is now a bright and shining monument to what is possible in rugby league.
Although winning this game was not a miracle, defeating Australia would be.
Paulo was reported for a nasty lifting tackle in the first half and will be lucky to avoid suspension. Samoa may be unable to win with him, but they are unable to win without him.
Harris-Tavita is courageous and willing, but asking him to play 80 minutes is a tall order, and he may have to do it with Brown ruled out due to HIA protocols.
But, after all they’ve done, who would dismiss them? None of this was supposed to be possible after what occurred at the start of the tournament. Take a look at them now. Take a look at what they’re capable of.
They’ve already gone boldly where no Samoan team – or any Pacific Island team – has gone before. What’s to say they can’t take it a step further?