Back from hibernation, International Rugby League is awake.
It will be a sea of near 40,000 screaming passionate league fans, mostly in the red of Mate Ma’a Tonga – ready to watch these powerhouse nations unleash live rugby league in New Zealand since before a global pandemic struck.
The one guarantee from this match is that the atmosphere will be immense. And deservedly so. Fans who are hungry and starving to see their heroes and their countries and cultures clash in a way that will make your eyes well up with tears, and a lump of pride stick in your throat.
The way that Tonga turned the international rugby league scene on its head from the 2017 RLWC was exactly the kick that it needed.
And once again they’ve named a very powerful side to take on the Kiwis.
Household names of Addin Fonua-Blake, Jason Taumalolo, Siosiua Taukeiaho, and Kotoni Staggs will lead Tonga, with new faces such as Manly duo Tolutau Koula, Christian Tuipulotu, and rising Dragons star Talatau Amone.
The side that they’ve picked gives me hope for the future of the international game. With another Rugby League World Cup at the end of the year, we’re likely to see this side only get stronger without Origin playing a part.
There’s a good mix of veterans who have paved the way and created this incredible change, but also some young, exciting players who will be Mate Ma’a Tonga representatives.
The New Zealand Kiwis side is probably the strongest side they have been able to name since the 2015 ANZAC Test which was their first ANZAC Test win in 17 years, and the first time New Zealand had beaten Australia in three consecutive matches since 1953.
Four players will suit up for the Kiwis for the very first time on Saturday night at Mount Smart Stadium.
Ronaldo Mulitalo, Marata Niukore, Dylan Brown and Moses Leota are all deserved of their spots and will partake in the pre-game haka with pride.
The prospect of the Kiwis spine is worth admission alone. Yep, that’s an old adage, but I love it!
Joseph Manu puts the 1 jersey on his back in an international for the first time, Dylan Brown, Jahrome Hughes, and Brandon Smith are all arguably in the top three players in their positions in the NRL right now.
And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best international forward pack at the moment.
The Bromwich brothers, reigning premier Josh Fisher-Harris, Dally M Second-Rower of the year Isaiah Papali’i, and Canberra king Joseph Tapine.
Tonga will have to play really well on attack to ruffle these Kiwi feathers. Not the strongest spine, but enough individual talent in their starting 13 to cause some issues for the New Zealand defence.
Plenty of ball-playing forwards with the ability to either hit the line with a physical presence or provide an option out the back means that the Kiwis can’t afford to sleep on this Tongan side.
The form of the Kiwis gives me great hope that they will get the win. They have a well-balanced line-up, a spine that will run and create plenty of problems, but also enough throbbers to really batter and bruise the Tongans.
Take Brandon Smith as your first try scorer. New Zealand to win 30-20.
P.S I’m just bloody stoked to see international rugby league back!
The Kiwi Ferns also take on Mate Ma’a Tonga. Samoa take on the Cook Islands. Papua New Guinea play against Fiji, and on Sunday it’s State Of Origin 2 (keep your eyes out for my preview of this also).
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