While the 2018 #NRL Pre-Season is still a few weeks away, there's a bunch of warm-up clashes happeni...
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We keep hearing one phrase when it comes to International Rugby League. The gap is closing. The gap between the Big Three nations and the rest is steadily closing.
This is a match between a side that recently caused a result against a side that has continually managed to underwhelm themselves.
Following their match-up in the 2013 World Cup, the two sides, not surprisingly have taken different paths. Following a Quarter Final defeat to New Zealand, Scotland qualified for the 2016 Four Nations. Following dismal defeats to Australia and England, the Bravehearts managed their first ever result against a Big Three nation, an 18-all draw with New Zealand. Unfortunately they have had a preparation for the tournament that has caused serious injury to their entire NRL brigade. North Queensland duo Lachlan Coote and Kane Linnett, Penrith hooker Peter Wallace and St George Illawarra centre Euan Aitken were all expected to be major keys but unfortunately none of them will even play in the tournament.
Tonga have always been the side that could do well, but never do. They have dominated the headlines entering the event due to players turning down certain Australian and New Zealand jerseys to don the red. Lead by North Queensland's finals hero Jason Taumalolo, fellow Kiwis David Fusitu'a, Manu Ma'u and Sio Siua Taukeiaho, along with Australian front rower Andrew Fifita all made themselves unavailable for their major nations. No doubt Tonga have one of the most exciting line-ups coming into the tournament, but their usual problem of a lack of halves may once again be their downfall. In recent years Tonga have taken part in the Pacific Test matches that have taken place early in the season. Following back-to-back defeats to arch rivals Samoa, this year they turned it around with a 26-24 defeat of Fiji at Campbelltown Stadium.
Both previous meetings between these two nations have taken place in World Cups. They faced off in the 2013 World Cup 7th place play-off, with Tonga taking a dominating 48-0 victory. The 2013 fixture was the opening fixture of the pool and of grave importance. In front of a small Workington crowd, the two sides battled in a match of surprising high intensity. Tonga struck first through fullback Glen Fisi'iahi, before Scotland blew the game wide open following tries to Gold Coast young gun Matty Russell, interchange hooker Ben Fisher and Workington winger Brett Carter to open up a stunning 20-4 lead. Tonga never gave up however, future captain Sika Manu crossed for a brace while Nafe Seluini and Willie Manu also scored to give Tonga a 24-20 lead. But with seven minutes remaining, Matty Russell scored his second. Following the conversion to captain Danny Brough, Scotland held on to win a memorable game. The match eventually proved vital to Scotland's qualifcations to the Quarter Finals.
Who to watch: As much as you want to be imaginative, the obvious man to watch for Scotland is Huddersfield Giant veteran Danny Brough. A man who has played 22 of his country's 51 historical Test matches, Brough brings the obvious wealth of experience to a side that severly lacks it. At 34 years old, it is most likely his last big tournament in a Scottish jersey, and he will surely make it worth it. Of course fullback Matty Russell will also be vital. Following a starring few seasons with Warrington, the former Gold Coast TItans under 20s player will prove to be the spark to set the Bravehearts alight in the tournament.
Now for Tonga, yes, they have Taumalolo. They have Fifita. They have superstars all round the park, I get it. But the thing is, they always have. Only Tevita Pangai Jr has never played for Tonga before in that entire squad, meaning at one time or another they have all donned the jersey. The results have definitely been mixed and historically, a definitive reason is because of the lack of halves. Samisoni Langi and Ata Hingano are there to boost that, as is Wests Tiger five-eighth Tuimoala Lolohea. Whilst being a natural fullback, Lolohea will need to provide the playmaking spark if Tonga are any chance of playing at the level many people are currently expecting them to play.
The favourite: At New Zealand and with the stars they provide, Tonga are obvious favourites for this one.
My tip: I was really looking forward to this match, myself having plenty of Scottish heritage. Unfortunately the injuries have cruelled many a chance for this to be a competitive match, I'm expecting a decent Tonga win in a high scoring contest.
1. Lewis Tierney 2. Matthew Russell 3. Ben Hellewell 4. Lachlan Stein 5. Will Oakes 6. Danny Brough 7. Danny Addy 8. Luke Douglas 9. Kane Bentley 10. Ben Kavanagh 11. Frankie Mariano 12. Dale Ferguson 13. James Bell 14. Callum Phillips 15. Andrew Bentley 16. Sam Brooks 17. John Walker
1. William Hopoate 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Michael Jennings 20. Konrad Hurrell 5. Manu Vatuvei 6. Tuimoala Lolohea 7. Mafoa'aeata Hingano 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Siliva Havili 10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho 11. Manu Ma'u 12. Sika Manu 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Sione Katoa 15. Sam Moa 16. Peni Terepo 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila