Test Matches: Tonga v Samoa preview
Pacific nations look to improve upon World Cup showings
Widely tipped to challenge for a semi final berth last year, Samoa proved to be the biggest flop of the World Cup with an uninspired draw against also-rans Scotland being the only positive sign to come out of an otherwise woeful international campaign. Appearing lethargic and overweight during the group stage and highly criticised for their 46-0 qualifying final non-event against Australia, coach Matt Parish has responded to the disappointment of 2017 with a revitalised squad combining established campaigners and fresh faces. Naming eight debutants including former Tongan international Jorge Taufua, the absence of several veteran forwards due to retirement will see Saturday's test treated as an opportunity to gauge the quality of a number of players earmarked for long representative careers. Unable to retain the services of four New Zealand debutants including powerhouse props Herman Ese'ese and Leeson Ah Mau, the implications of failing to make a mark in the same manner as their opponents could prove costly for the Samoans as they look to maintain their slight overall advantage in tests played against Tonga over the past decade. In a boost to their cause, dumped Queensland utility Anthony Milford has been selected to play his sixth test for the island nation alongside impressive youngster Mason Lino as part of a halves combination with the potential to get the better of the more-experienced Tongans.
Unable to complete a fast finish against England due to a correct refereeing decision that could have set up a shock final with Australia had Andrew Fifita maintained control of possession, Tonga will be eager to assert their newfound authority on the international stage on Saturday night. Facing off against their Pacific rivals in what has developed into a strong following in recent seasons, coach Kristian Woolf has made minimal changes to the team that served him so well in 2017 with 14 members of the World Cup squad named. Handing debuts to Robert Jennings and Tevita Tatola as reward for their strong club form with South Sydney, one of the determining factors on Saturday night may prove to be the consistent time in first grade received by hooking duo Siliva Havili and Sione Katoa, contrasting the overall lack of regular minutes afforded to the opposing members of the Samoan spine. In another minor triumph over New Zealand, Manly front rower Addin Fonua-Blake will line up at Campbelltown Stadium after declaring his allegiance for Tonga in a show of solidarity alongside the seven former Kiwis who defected in the World Cup - indicating that the distance between international powerhouses and minnows is narrowing. With mid-season tests against fellow Pacific nations becoming regular fixtures over the past five years, the fourth-ranked side will be hopeful of overcoming a mixed record that has seen massive favourable score lines and agonising narrow defeats against their weekend opponents.
Who to watch: With Leeson Ah Mau making his debut for New Zealand at age 28, Samoan utility Pita Godinet will be looking to lead the way as one of the most-experienced member of a largely youthful team. Tied alongside powerhouse centre Joey Leilua with 13 tests, the 30-year-old rake has enjoyed a career best season in first grade after reuniting with Ivan Cleary - the man who handed him a NRL start with the Warriors seven years ago. Regularly defying his miniature presence to make an impact in international matches, Godinet has caused opposing teams plenty of headaches with his wily speed creating space in defensive lines to be exposed. Opposing a Tongan side that boasts a number of highly regarded playmakers, the service Godinet provides out of dummy half may be difference between Samoa continuing their recent run of mediocrity or a breakthrough win capable of turning the tide back in their favour.
Generating plenty of publicity with his declaration to forego a New South Wales jersey in order to represent Tonga at international level, Sharks prop Andrew Fifita will be looking to justify his decision over the course of 80 minutes on Saturday night. Regarded as arguably the finest forward in the game at his best, the polarising premiership winner has gained plenty of admirers for his heroics with Cronulla during a battling injury run this season, but as the most vocal figure in pledging his international allegiance away from Australia, a poor performance at Campbelltown will provide detractors with plenty of ammunition to malign the powerhouse prop for his media-fuelled stance. Directly involved in the last gasp error that cruelled the fairy tale finish World Cup pundits desired, Fifita will be out to make amends against Samoa by establishing a platform for his side to capitalise on from the opening stages.
The favourite: Coming off a defining international campaign last season, the success enjoyed by Tonga is expected to continue on Saturday night.
My tip: With the inclusion of Anthony Milford in the Samoan squad, the margin of Saturday's test should be closer than initially anticipated; however the precedent set by Tonga at the World Cup should follow through at Campbelltown Stadium. Tonga by 8.
Tonga Form Guide
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Samoa Form Guide
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