SAINTS’ Lachlan Coote, Luke Thompson, Alex Walmsley and Jonny Lomax began the Great Britain tour in defeat against a Tonga Invitational XIII in Hamilton, New Zealand.

They were part of a Lions side overshadowed by the continued rise in strength of Tongan rugby league, courtesy of the nation’s stars littering the NRL.

It was a brutal contest, and losing 2019’s top performing Super League front rower Thompson to what appeared to be a rib injury in the 12th minute left Great Britain a sub short for the remainder of this first ever Test between the two nations.

The men in red, coached by incoming Saints boss Kristian Woolfe, assembled a 14-0 lead by the 62nd minute mark with tries by Michael Jennings (30mins) and Sione Katou (40mins), along with two conversions and a penalty by captain Sio Siua Taukeiaho that ultimately put the game beyond Great Britain’s reach.

Great Britain put Woolf’s warriors under pressure in the second half, resulting in a John Bateman try from a Gareth Widdop pass in the 69th minute.

Widdop also converted the score but it proved to be too little, too late from the Lions who lacked penetration against a hard-hitting, well-organised and skilful Tongan outfit.

Skipper James Graham, the former Saints prop on his 50th international appearance, and his GB pack had huge difficulty in handling the Tongan powerhouses in a first half that the men in red dominated.

But for most part the Lions’ well-structured defence was equal to everything thrown at it, albeit forced onto the back foot by a side that defeated New Zealand in the 2017 World Cup before pushing England to the wire in the semi-finals.

The breakthrough try came off-the-cuff from a grubber kick that Widdop and Coote failed to deal with.

Tonga regathered and the ball was flashed wide for Jennings to finish off.

A dropped ball going over the line and a Widdop try-saving tackle on William Hopoate kept the Lions within six points, albeit on the back foot.

The second try came after the half-time hooter had sounded, with the Tongans keeping the ball alive through 11 pairs of hands before Jennings kicked ahead for Katou to complete a stunning score.

Great Britain had hardly had a sniff of the Tongan line in that first period, struggling to get out of their own half at times, not finishing their sets well and making too many errors.

Alex Walmsley, who had replaced his St Helens teammate Thompson, was having the best joy in making ground against the fierce defence but his teammates were not able to capitalise.

The second half was better from Great Britain.

The arrival of Jonny Lomax in place of his Saints teammate Coote at full-back did give the Tongans more to worry about.

But ultimately Woolf’s men kept turning up for each other in front of a passionate flag-waving sea of red created by the Tonga supporters and got themselves over the line.

GB will have to dust themselves off ready for the Kiwis next Saturday.