By Stephen Gallagher
In June 2017, if you had told me that Kiwis V Mate Ma’a Tonga would be one of the most anticipated clashes in international rugby league history – I probably would have laughed.
Oh how times have changed.
After the stunning display in front of a packed home crowd of Tongan fans at Waikato Stadium, Mate Ma’a Tonga pulled off their greatest victory to date in the Rugby League World Cup, November 11th November 2017.
The 28-22 scoreline was deserved. New Zealand in tatters, one week later were on the wrong side of a 4-2 loss to Fiji in the quarter finals – whereas Tonga were two points shy of making it to the final.
Fast-forward to this week – and the long awaited rematch is getting both sets of fans very much pumped for this Oceania Cup clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
The New Zealand Kiwis will blood two debutants. Briton Nikora who is in his first season for the Cronulla Sharks, and Melbourne Storm’s Jahrome Hughes.
While Mate Ma’a Tonga have Manase Fainu, Sitili Tupouniua, and Kotoni Staggs all making their first appearance in red.
I would describe the Kiwis side as well-balanced.
Finally showing some depth in key positions, it’s great to see some young players stand up and take their opportunity to play representative football.
A lot of eyes are on halves pairing Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall – who play together for only the second time for the Kiwis. The first time was Shaun Johnson’s debut in 2012 where he took a stunning intercept try at the same ground they play at on Saturday.
Benji’s development as a player and a man over the last two years has grown his game incredibly.
Not the hot stepping, flareful kid who once carved up the competition. His maturity, decision making, and kicking game has guided the Wests Tigers around perfectly.
Shaun Johnson’s injury concerns seem to be at ease after making it through eighty minutes last week, but I’m sure he is still wary of his hamstring.
Tonga’s forwards are the key to their success. The likes of Jason Taumalolo, Manu Ma’u, Siosiua Taukei’aho and Addin Fonua-Blake have been outstanding in the NRL this season.
They will miss Andrew Fifita’s aggression in the middle, but they do have great strength in those key front row positions.
That means New Zealand’s Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves have a big task ahead of them. If they can match, or get the upper hand in the battle of the physical blokes – that will help their chances.
My biggest concern for Mate Ma’a Tonga surrounds their halves. Tu’imoala Lolohea has been flown halfway around the world for this, while North Queensland’s Mr Fix-it John Asiata goes from his usual prop position in to five-eighth.
There’s a lot of pressure on these two to steer their side around. The Kiwis will target that for sure.
The big strength is Manase Fainu, who will come off the bench. His form for Manly this season has been devastating, and if he can get in the ruck and catch out tired markers – Tonga will get on the front foot that way.
New Zealand just have to play with a lot of composure. There’s a lot of experience in there who can manage the game, as well as expectations.
The Kiwis will have learnt plenty of lessons since that Rugby League World Cup loss. Then again, so will have Mate Ma’a Tonga.
How much longer will we have to wait until they get to become a tier one nation? A win here would definitely go a long way.
The red flags will be out in force. The Tongan fans will be singing and chanting in the stands all game long. As far as I am concerned, this is their home game.
The Kiwis just have to try weather the Tongan storm.
It’s going to be a very close match. I can’t see more than 10 points separating these two sides.
Tonga will start the stronger of the two, but I think the Kiwis can get the job done.
Look for Daniel Tupou as the opening try scorer, but the Kiwis to prevail 26-18.
Plus as a reminder – this game kicks off at the earlier time of 5.40pm on Saturday.
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