By Mark Stevens
Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis helped Wales to get their summer tour off to a winning start with a 24-6 victory over Tonga in Auckland on Friday.
The 25-year-old tight-head featured for 78 minutes on his 23rd Test appearance before he was replaced in the front-row by debutant Dillion Lewis.
Despite what looked a comfortable result for the tourists, Robin McBryde’s side were given quite a work-out by the Islanders at Eden Park.
The opening half was evenly contested with Alex Cuthbert’s try and a Sam Davies penalty giving the visitors an 8-3 lead at the break, with Sonatane Takulua slotting a penalty for Tonga.
Newcastle Falcons scrum-half Takulua narrowed the gap with his second penalty, but conditons became more difficult as most of the second half was played in driving rain.
Davies added three further penalties for the Welsh to put them in control, before referee Nick Briant awarded them a penalty try late on after Tonga’s forwards collapsed a maul illegally close to their try-line.
Post-match, McBryde – who is interim coach in the absence of both Warren Gatland and Rob Howley, both of whom are with the British & irish Lions – felt his youthful side had learnt some valuable lessons in their hard-fought victory.
“Sometimes you have just got to leave the players out there to learn lessons,” said McBryde, who gave first caps to nine of his match-day squad.
“I was very pleased for Sam Davies. There was a big pressure kick in the second half, but he got it over. You have got to allow players time to make mistakes, learn the lessons and problem solve on the way and I think they did that pretty well. It was difficult conditions with the rain.
“We just have to learn to respect the ball a bit more and respect the conditions. There were a couple of loose passes that just put under pressure. We just stuck at what we were doing up front.
“We put quite a bit of pressure on their ball at lineout time It was a good effort up front. I felt we could have played it a bit tighter at times.”
Next up for Wales is a trip to Apia to take-on Samoa, who were heavily beaten by the All Blacks in the game that followed the Wales triumph at Eden Park.
“All in all I thought it was a performance we can be proud of,” added McBryde. “It wasn’t a complete performance but it was played in difficult conditions in heavy showers. Tonga didn’t disappoint with the physical nature they came at us. They posed threats, but I felt we looked really comfortable. The aim was to get the result whilst developing individuals in the process.”
Tonga: 15 David Halaifonua, 14 Nafi Tu’itavake, 13 Siale Piutau (c), 12 Vili Tahitu’a, 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 Latiume Fosita, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Valentino Mapapalangi, 7 Nili Latu, 6 Dan Faleafa, 5 Sitiveni Mafi, 4 Leva Fifita, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Paula Ngauamo, 1 Latu Talakai
Replacements: 16 Suliasi Taufalele, 17 Sila Puafisi, 18 Phil Kite, 19 Sione Tau, 20 Mike Faleafa, 21 Leon Fukofuka, 22 Kali Hala, 23 Kiti Taimani
Pens: Takulua (2)
Wales: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts (c), 11 Steffan Evans, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Josh Navidi, 7 Thomas Young, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Cory Hill, 4 Seb Davies, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Kristian Dacey, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Ellis Jenkins, 20 Ollie Griffiths, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Cory Allen
Tries: Cuthbert, Penalty Try; Pens: S Davies (4)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)