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Alastair Hignell

'Tonga's wing was the size of a small house' (23)

Paris - “The girl you’re dancing with is a bloke”.

The memory of the whispered warning at the post-match party after England played Tonga for the first time is as sharp now as the lighting back in 1979 was dim.

Memories of the match are less clear; we won, one of their wings was the size of a small house, while the King of Tonga, to whom we were presented before the game, was the size of a large one.

I remember spending the pre-match warm-up clearing shards of razor-sharp coral from a pitch that seemed to have an equal number of bumps and potholes and considerably fewer blades of grass.

And I remember changing in what could have been the groundsman’s shed under the stand - no electricity, no showers, no light - if you opened the door to see what you were doing and to let the air in, the crowd came too.

I wish I could remember more of what turned out to be my last appearance in an England shirt. (Anoraks will know that England went on to win the Grand Slam in 1980 and I wasn’t in the team. I like to pretend the two facts are unrelated!).

And the history books are not much help.

The England media guide for this World Cup, for instance, doesn’t mention the match in Nuku’alofa at all.

One of the game’s main websites includes it in a list of previous encounters - actually, there’s only one other, a World Cup pool match in 1999 which England won 101-10.

Another ignores it, on the grounds that as the RFU didn’t deem a game against such opposition as worthy of a full cap in those days, then neither should they.

On a personal level, I’d love to have another three caps to my name (England also played Japan and Fiji on that tour).

On a professional level, I’d love to have across the board consistency when it comes to statistics.

That way we commentators could know for sure whether Jonny Wilkinson scored his 1,000th point in international rugby in Saturday’s win over Samoa, or is still 14 short.

It could have happened during my commentary spell during 5Live’s outside broadcast from Nantes, but after landing two conversions, a drop goal and three penalties, the outside half pushed a fourth one wide.

Ian Robertson duly celebrated the milestone when Wilkinson landed his next kick.

But did he? Before the game Wilkinson had scored 915 points for England and 47 points on Lions tours, but he’d also scored 20 points for the Lions against Argentina in Cardiff in 2005.

As the Lions are a touring team and theoretically can’t play home internationals, some statisticians ignored this.

But the IRB, who are after all the game’s rulers, does recognise it as an international on their website and does include it in their stats.

That’s good enough for me. But, just to be on the safe side, I’ll still be happy to salute his 14th point against Tonga. I’ll be even more happy if I can salute it during my first spell of commentary, which ends halfway through the first half.

Alastair Hignell is a former England rugby international who commentates on rugby union for Radio 5 Live. He is covering England at the World Cup. 5 Live's full broadcast schedule is here.


Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 12:31 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

i have also been to Nukualofa and sat near the king of Tonga in the expensive seats(they cost about £6). At halftime they passed a tray full of sandwiches and another one full of cups of fizzy drink along the row. Each person took whatever they wanted and passed on the tray. It was the coolest thing ever and i guess a bit different to Twickenham! Seems to me rugby is inate to these Polynesians and the crowd for that derby match between Tonga and Fiji watched a fercious 60 point encounter which Tonga edged. I have had a soft spot for them ever since and after Englands insipid tournament hope they can pull off the biggest shock ever against my team. GO TONGA!!!!

  • 2.
  • At 01:16 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

Got to agree with Tom. Although I am English and do support England, sometimes I do wonder if us being dumped out of the cup by Tonga will give us the nessessary kick up the rear we need right now. Tonga deserve to reach their first RWC quarter final and what a way to get it by beating world champs England too. GO TONGA indeed.

  • 3.
  • At 01:44 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Claire McKay wrote:

As an Irish person living in Wales, I'm not having the best RWC tournament! But I live in hope. Ireland should win their last pool match although Argentina played a blinder against France (who would have thought eh?) England? Not so sure. I hope they win and I will be watching on Friday. Wales - yeah, why not? They really deserve to win.
Poor Scotland though. They've played well - just not well enough unfortunately!
GO ON THE HOME NATIONS!

  • 4.
  • At 01:58 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

Tom, it's not that unusual at Twickenham to pass round bottles of port/hipflask around your area of the crowd and get them back, with some left in as well ...

  • 5.
  • At 02:01 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Jon wrote:

Here here. GO TONGA!

  • 6.
  • At 02:51 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • David Hutton wrote:

I remember in the old days i.e. 70's 80's sharing half bottles with oppostion supporters (especially including England) at Murrayfield. After the ban on carrying alchol into the stadium we then shared hip flasks. I was spotted sharing a hip flask with an English supporter at Murrayfield a couple of years back by a policeman who chose to ignore it. Who is going to throw their hip flasks at opposition supporters after all? Better to share with them!!

  • 7.
  • At 03:16 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Andy in Dar wrote:

I just recall watching a rugby game in Honiara in the Solomon Islands as a lad. All I remember was the police side who had boots playing a rubust game with some poor other guys without boots (inmates) on coral pitch. It was hot and humid as the islands are near the equator and was played at sea level. The pacific nations are like Africa of football all the natural talent but still waiting to win a world cup. IRB and SANZAR sort it out! I look forward to following more tours they make.

  • 8.
  • At 04:02 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

Glad that camaraderie still exists in grounds in the uk-thank god rugby supporters are passionate and fair! I didn't mean this as an attack on uk spectators. Bit sick of xenophobia on some blogs so lets hope good rugby is the winner.

  • 9.
  • At 04:13 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Bob in the USA wrote:

Might we see only two northern hemisphere teams make the quarterfinals? South Africa, Tonga, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Scotland/Italy, Argentina and France/Ireland? And perhaps none from the British Isles? Now if only we could get the USA and Canada into gear to shut all of Europe out of the next RWC QFs...

  • 10.
  • At 04:14 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

Glad that camaraderie still exists in grounds in the uk-thank god rugby supporters are passionate and fair! By the way-I didn't mean this as an attack on uk spectators. Bit sick of xenophobia on some blogs so lets hope good rugby is the winner.

  • 11.
  • At 05:32 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Bernie Oppenheim wrote:

I was sitting next to a Frenchman and his elegant fur coated wife at Twickers a few years ago. Almost blooted by the number of swigs he insisted on me having from his brandy flask

  • 12.
  • At 06:27 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • nativeman wrote:

lomu is Tongan
imagine if he was playing on friday hahaha I am sure some of those tongans are are powerful as him

  • 13.
  • At 07:33 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • chris wilders wrote:

Respectful note to Bernie
We don't have brandy in France..
it's cognac.
I live 8 kms from Cognac..grew up in South Africa, moved to England in 1967, had kids who all played rugby so now I support 4 teams in the W.C.
Obviously I forgot to mention being born in Wales.Only one winning chance
from these disparate bets.

  • 14.
  • At 07:54 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • chris wilders wrote:

Respectful note to Bernie
We don't have brandy in France..
it's cognac.
I live 8 kms from Cognac..grew up in South Africa, moved to England in 1967, had kids who all played rugby so now I support 4 teams in the W.C.
Obviously I forgot to mention being born in Wales.Only one winning chance
from these disparate bets.

  • 15.
  • At 09:48 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Mike Cassidy wrote:

Talking of hospitality at Twickenham, I have fond memories of a Frenchman who parked his van in the stadium car park before the 5-nation match in 1991, set up a table and gave out saucisson, fromage and vin rouge to all and sundry.

I gave up trying to find a ticket and tucked in (out of politeness) before adjourning to the nearest pub to watch this:

https://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=nXk-0qT4lYI

This'll do me, I thought, and duly moved to France where I've lived ever since.

  • 16.
  • At 10:20 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Sharon wrote:

The Tongan captain's post match comment after their loss to the Springboks was brilliant & well worth a listen.

I hope they beat England, they have already done so off the field with their mana & charm.

  • 17.
  • At 10:39 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

Nice one Mike. That try was pure class-Blanco + Cella at their best, what a shame France play their rugby more like England now.

  • 18.
  • At 11:08 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Fale Havea wrote:

I believe that Tonga will make it to the Quarter Final because they have made great improvements this year as they move on from match to match. And as for England I think they worry too much for this game on Friday...

  • 19.
  • At 03:00 AM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Ben Morgan wrote:

I remember the fuss when Neil Jenkins passed the record for points scored. Or had he? He had if you counted his points for the Lions but he was shy for a while if you didn't. For me Lions points should count home or away. If the opposing players are counting it as a test match and they get stats from it then so should the Lions players. I assume now due to the dearth of talent available to England Wilkinson will go on to comfortably beat Jenkins' record. Good luck to him, he deserves it for the player he was. Sadly these days it seems he's turned into Rob Andrew Jr. and that began well before the injuries set in.

  • 20.
  • At 03:26 AM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Rahul Naidu wrote:

I hope Tonga wins against England. i am from Fiji. We don't have enough money to eat, then how can we afford to buy training equipment. I hope the big nations can help Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.
We have the talents but at one stage we need money to move forward.

God bless the BBC for your rugby commentaries Alastair. The powers that be here in France (Television channel TF1)in their infinate money grabbing wisdom, have decided not to transmit unimportant matches like Tonga/England on a free to air channel, but give them to their sister channel Eurosport!
An upset by Tonga would be a bit special, and hopefully make England rethink their entire rugby mindset.
As my 11 year old son has a ticket for NZ/Romania in Toulouse he couldn't give a fig about Tonga/England! From one ex fitz rugbyman and Sherbourne fives man to another!

  • 22.
  • At 12:38 PM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Jeffery wrote:

Iam from Fiji, putting aside, Tonga vs England. Fiji surely will beat Wales....GO FIJI GO...

  • 23.
  • At 04:57 PM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Donny wrote:

I was quite enjoying this article, until I got to the final paragraph, when it reverts to typical English Media arrogance.

"I'll still be happy to salute his 14th point against Tonga"

So, you are presuming that Wilkinson will score at least 14 points against Tonga?! I had hoped that the humbling by South Africa had put Englands arrogance to bed for this tournament, and after reading that I think I will now be shouting on Tonga. Wilkinson is still good with the boot, but he's not half the player he used to be......

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