Coach Shaun Wane’s side will now seek to complete a clean sweep when the teams meet for the final time at AMT Headingley next Saturday. Seating tickets have already sold out for Test rugby’s return to Leeds and it should be a better occasion than the drab one at John Smith’s Stadium.
Other than England’s victory, the crowd - a disappointing 11,210 - weren’t given a lot to cheer about. Tonga had more chances than England and played some good rugby amid a succession of errors, but the hosts’ strong defence meant they were 14 points adrift before finally getting over the line for their only try.
Twelve of England’s points were scored in the first half as Ashton justified his call up in place of the injured Tommy Makinson. Leeds Rhinos centre Harry Newman, playing in his hometown, provided the pass for the first after just seven minutes as England benefited from a penalty and set restart.
Tonga’s touchdown came on Newman’s side of the field and he didn’t have any try-scoring opportunities, but he looked sharp with what little ball he got.
Harry Smith converted off the touchline and also scored England’s next points on 25 minutes with a penalty goal following a dangerous tackle on John Bateman. Tonga had come close to scoring a couple of times before that, through Tolutoa Koula. Firstly, he was tackled into touch by Ashton, then he seemed to be clear from Tui Lolohea’s pass, but dropped the ball.
Tonga’s third good chance came moments before England extended their lead with four minutes to go in the half. Scrum-half Isaiya Katoa dummied for the line, but Elliott Whitehead kept him out and on the final tackle of England’s counter-attack Mikey Lewis dabbed a kick behind the line and Ashton displayed electric pace to get the ball down.
England increased their lead by two through another Smith penalty eight minutes after the break, but it should have been at least four. Tom Johnstone - who hadn’t really been involved before that - spilled the ball a metre out from a lovely kick to the corner by substitute prop Mike McMeeken.
That completed England’s scoring and though Tonga pulled a try back, the result was never really in doubt. Johnstone made amends for his blunder with a stunning one-on-one tackle to keep Koula out soon afterwards, but the winger finally managed to get over the line 15 minutes into the half, from Will Hopoate’s pass.
That was unconverted and the game petered out in the final quarter. Now the pressure is off, England may have the freedom to express themselves more next week.
England: Welsby, Ashton, Newman, King, Johnstone, Lewis, Smith, Burgess, Clark, Lees, Bateman, Whitehead, Radley. Subs Walker, Farrell, Hill, McMeeken.
Tonga: Hopoate, Tupou, Penisini, Suli, Koula, Lolohea, I Katoa, Fonua-Blake, Havili, Tatola, Frizell, Olakau’atu, Kaufusi. Suvs Teaupa, Fotuaika, Koloamatangi, E Katoa.
Referee: Jack Smith (England). Crowd: 11,210.