England 26 Tonga 4: Job done for Shaun Wane's side in series whitewash but doubt remains

England achieved their autumn objective by whitewashing Tonga but whether they have improved since last year's World Cup semi-final exit is open for debate.

Shaun Wane's side have shown they can beat the best tier-two nations, as evidenced by three straight wins over an imposing Tongan outfit, albeit a limited version missing the likes of Jason Taumalolo and David Fifita.

But Samoa planted a seed of doubt that will remain until England rekindle their rivalries with Australia and New Zealand.

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After somehow managing to avoid the big two at last year's World Cup, England have not faced the Kangaroos since the 2017 final and must go back five years for their last meeting with the Kiwis. For context, England played New Zealand 10 times in the previous five-year period.

With Samoa set to tour next autumn, England must wait for the 2025 series against Australia to gauge their progress ahead of the World Cup the following year.

The Kangaroos won the tournament for the 12th time in 2022 but are smarting from a shock 30-0 drubbing by New Zealand in the inaugural Pacific Cup final.

The aberration is a timely wake-up call for Australia and highlights the strength of the Kiwis as they build towards the next World Cup in the southern hemisphere.

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The great rivals traded wins in the Pacific Championships, which conclude on Sunday with a final between Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

England celebrate Harry Newman's try. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)England celebrate Harry Newman's try. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
England celebrate Harry Newman's try. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

While a bumper period of international rugby should be celebrated, England are no closer to knowing whether they can compete with Australia and New Zealand.

It is one thing putting a beaten Tongan side to the sword and another to execute under pressure against the best in the world.

After winning the series with victories in St Helens and Huddersfield, Wane's men ran in four tries in front of a crowd of 15,477 at Headingley to secure a clean sweep.

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Ben Currie – filling in at centre due to a spate of injuries – opened the scoring before Matty Ashton went over for his third try in two games.

Elliott Whitehead slides over to score on his final appearance. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)Elliott Whitehead slides over to score on his final appearance. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
Elliott Whitehead slides over to score on his final appearance. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

Bradford-born Elliott Whitehead scored on his final international appearance and Leeds Rhinos centre Harry Newman ended a difficult year on a high with a memorable try on his home ground.

Newman did his reputation no harm during the three-match series and former Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone enjoyed a strong return to the international scene, while young half-backs Harry Smith and Mikey Lewis showed enough to suggest they can crack the top level.

But Wane must wait two years to discover whether they can pass the acid test against Australia.

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In the here and now, the England boss will be pleased with his side's professional approach to a tricky series, culminating in their best performance at Headingley.

Matty Lees spent 10 minutes in the sin bin. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)Matty Lees spent 10 minutes in the sin bin. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)
Matty Lees spent 10 minutes in the sin bin. (Photo: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com)

Currie had already been held up over the line when he finished a slick team move to break the deadlock in the 14th minute.

Tom Burgess put Smith into space with a line-breaking offload and the Wigan Warriors half-back held his nerve to draw the full-back and put Currie over.

Tonga had the chance to respond after Ashton was robbed of the ball by Haumole Olakau'atu on a kick return.

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The tourists had a good look at the England line but could find no way through, Moses Suli coming closest when he slipped yards short on the last tackle.

Tonga found themselves on the back foot again after an error by Isaiya Katoa on his own 10 and were unable to keep the hosts out.

John Bateman demonstrated his footwork and strength to attract several Tonga defenders before getting away an offload to give Newman the chance to send Ashton over in the corner with a superb flick pass.

Matty Aston celebrates scoring a try. (Photo: John Clifton/SWpix.com)Matty Aston celebrates scoring a try. (Photo: John Clifton/SWpix.com)
Matty Aston celebrates scoring a try. (Photo: John Clifton/SWpix.com)

Smith added the extras from the touchline and knocked over a penalty to make it 14-0 after Latu Fainu was guilty of a tip tackle on the returning George Williams.

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When Matty Lees and Keaon Koloamatangi were sin-binned following an altercation, there was a sense it would get the Tongans going.

But instead of the incident sparking them into life, Tonga completely lost their discipline to make life easier for England.

The tourists had the look of a beaten side as they emerged for the second half and were in damage limitation mode when Whitehead finished a fine move that featured a sensational no-look cut-out pass from Jack Welsby and an electrifying burst down the flank by Johnstone.

Tonga were not helped by a rush of blood from Konrad Hurrell, the former Rhinos centre sending a series of swinging arms in Mike McMeeken's direction to earn a yellow card.

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Whitehead was denied a second try by the video referee after appearing to ground Danny Walker's inch-perfect kick but England were soon celebrating their fourth – and a special one for the Headingley crowd.

The hosts kept the ball alive on the left flank before Smith drilled a sublime cross-field kick over to Newman who benefited from the wet conditions to slide over.

Smith maintained his perfect record from the tee but Eliesa Katoa had the last word with a consolation try 12 minutes from time.

England: Welsby, Ashton, Newman, Currie, Johnstone, Williams, Smith, Burgess, Clark, Lees, Bateman, Whitehead, Mulhern. Substitutes: Walker, Dupree, Hill, McMeeken.

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Tonga: Hopoate, Penisini, Hurrell, Suli, Koula, Lolohea, I Katoa, Sele, Havili, Kaufusi, Frizell, Olakau'atu, Koloamatangi. Substitutes: Fainu, Fotuaika, E Katoa, Wong.

Referee: Chris Kendall (England).

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