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Match of the Tournament shapes as groundbreaking upset
Heading into the World Cup, New Zealand were predicted to experience a transitory campaign brought on by the absence of several key players, most notably a seven-man contingent of former Kiwi representatives who declared their intentions to represent Tonga headlined by Jason Taumalolo. With anticipation of the Pool B showdown between the two nations dominating discussions over the past month, Saturday will put an end to the speculation and let the on-field action take centre stage. Producing two accomplished wins over disappointing opposition leading into the fixture, coach David Kidwell will be eager to assess where his squad is situated heading into the finals, while also using the contest as an opportunity to establish the best possible squad to field in the ensuing weeks. Having fielded the entirety of the 24-man squad over the opening fortnight, Kidwell has opted to revert back to the lineup that triumphed over Samoa, with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jordan Rapana, Kodi Nikorima, Thomas Leuluai, Simon Mannering and Isaac Liu all returning after being rested last Saturday.
While the pre-tournament hype that installed Tonga as World Cup dark horses may have been largely overstated, based on the side's opening two encounters, there is a case to be made that an upset lies in the reckoning. Much like their Saturday opponents, a 2-0 start against Samoa and Scotland has the Pacific nation eyeing off first place in Pool B in what would be a landmark achievement in the growth of International Rugby League. While the focus of the contest has largely been placed on Jason Taumalolo, a great deal of credit must be afforded to coach Kristian Woolf in his team selection that has yielded sensational results off the back of contributions across the board, rather than relying on individual performers. Opting against large-scale team changes, centre Konrad Hurrell returns in place of the injured Solomone Kata in the only change from the side that downed Samoa last Saturday. Having amassed 82 points in their group matches so far, the attacking potency of Tonga should cause New Zealand trouble, but in a sign that may well prove the difference, a defensive record of just four tries conceded will put the side in good stead for an upset.
Who to watch: Having fallen out of favour with International selectors in recent years, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will be out to use the World Cup as a platform to prove his worth as a world class prop. Earning a late call-up against Samoa a fortnight ago, the Roosters enforcer has performed strongly with over 100 metres in both matches, as well as a reliable contribution in defence to boot. Facing off against a forward pack renown for its size and power, the role played by Waerea-Hargreaves will be of paramount importance in establishing a platform for the Kiwi's creative players to weave their magic. Having been criticised for his performance in the Roosters meek Preliminary Final exit, the New Zealand front rower will have his sights set on making amends on the International stage.
In what is undoubtedly the most over-hyped showdown in recent rugby league memory, Jason Taumalolo will be out to silence the critics of his decision to represent Tonga over New Zealand with his on-field actions. With David Kidwell's war of words accusing the North Queensland enforcer of being disrespectful, Taumalolo will be fully aware of the target placed on him, but as he has shown in the time since the last World Cup, his talent as a professional athlete cannot be questioned. Leading from the front in the earlier fixtures against Scotland and Samoa, the 24-year-old will be eager to play his part in the larger tournament context and endeavour to use his profile to spearhead the biggest upset in international rugby league by toppling a heavyweight contender.
The favourite: While Tonga may be a side on the rise, the established qualities of the home side sees New Zealand favoured to finish on top of Pool B.
My tip: Having improved upon their earlier performances, Tonga will have the best chance of any emerging nation to produce an upset during the tournament, however the disparity that exists between the two sides means that for as hard as Tonga try, they lack the finer qualities to overcome New Zealand. New Zealand by 8.
1. Roger Tuivasa-sheck 2. Dallin Watene Zelezniak 3. Dean Whare 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Jordan Rapana 6. Kodi Nikorima 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Martin Taupau 9. Thomas Leuluai 10. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 11. Simon Mannering 12. Joseph Tapine 13. Adam Blair 14. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 15. Russell Packer 16. Isaac Liu 17. Danny Levi
1. William Hopoate 2. Daniel Tupou 18. Mahe Fonua 4. Konrad Hurrell 5. David Fusitua 6. Tuimoala Lolohea 7. Mafoa'aeata Hingano 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Sione Katoa 10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho 11. Manu Ma'u 12. Sika Manu 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Siliva Havili 21. Tevita Pangai Junior 16. Peni Terepo 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila