SIMON FINNIGAN insists Ireland will overcome the “devastation” of their two-point defeat by Tonga to make another important contribution to the 2008 World Cup.
The plucky Irish pushed a star-studded Tonga all the way in a truly memorable opening Pool C match at Parramatta before conceding a late try and going down 22-20. Ireland now need Samoa to beat their South Pacific neighbours in Penrith on Friday to keep alive their hopes of claiming the fourth semi-final berth.
It remains a big ask but Andy Kelly’s men have a full week to get over a defeat that left them shattered.
“It was heart-breaking,” admitted loose forward Finnigan. “The boys are devastated. I think we deserved to win but it doesn’t always mean that you do. They came up with a play at the end and got the points.”
Ireland fought back three times to take the lead in an epic and, when winger Damien Blanch completed his hat-trick after 66 minutes, they were in sight of a famous victory.
But former London Broncos stand-off Feleti Mateo, playing on his home ground at Parramatta Stadium, came up with a crucial 40-20 kick and, in the next play, fired out a pin-point pass to get winger Esi Tonga over for the match-winning try.
Ireland’s players collapsed in a heap at the final whistle but they left the field to a standing ovation and earned the praise of coach Kelly for “standing in front of a juggernaut”.
Kelly had claimed his side had not been given the respect they deserved in the build-up to the game and Finnigan admitted the criticism provided them with extra motivation.
“When you look at our team sheet, there are players who have played Super League for a lot of years and a lot of games,” said the former Widnes, Salford and Bradford forward, who will be playing for Huddersfield in 2009.
“Super League is not a bad competition and we’re not bad players.
“So it did spur us on. We thought we had a point to prove and I think we proved a lot of people wrong.
“A lot of people didn’t expect it to be like that. They’re a big side and a lot thought they would have rolled over the top of us. But we fronted up to them and, if we had been a little bit smarter, we would have beaten them.”
All is not lost for Ireland. They take on Samoa at Parramatta this day week, five days after the eagerly-awaited South Pacific “derby”, and still have an outside chance of reaching the semi-final qualifier.
“Hopefully, the Tongan boys feel as sore as we do and Samoa can do us a favour,” said Finnigan.
“You never know, we might go into that game needing to win to go into the semi-final qualifier and, if we play probably 10% better we might beat them. We’ve got a couple of days off so we’re going to relax by the pool and then get stuck into training. I think you could tell by the way we turned up, we didn’t come to mess around.”
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