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History beckons with final position up for grabs
At the start of 2017 the prospect of Tonga featuring in a World Cup semi final appeared probable to the extent that the Pacific Nation would fill the fourth position held by Fiji in the past two tournaments. With expectations that Australia would contest the final against the victor of the imminent New Zealand v England semi, the growth made by Kristian Woolf's squad has been nothing short of groundbreaking in the development of international rugby league and with an opportunity to topple their second Tier One nation in three weeks, what once was optimism at the prospect of causing an upset is now a strong possibility. Producing a flawed qualifying final display against Lebanon, Tonga will be hoping to combine the positive aspects of their past two displays, while eliminating the inconsistencies that were previously associated with teams outside the international elite. Boosted by the return of goal-kicking prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho in the starting side, the core of the Tongan squad remains the same with the additional inclusion of Peni Terepo coming onto the bench in place of Joe Ofahengaue. Showing their power to obliterate lesser teams and demonstrating the resolve needed to fight back and triumph over established squads as well, the progress made by Tonga over the past month has been outstanding, but with an opportunity to achieve what was considered impossible up until recently, the passion of the Pacific may be the difference in the determining the end result on Saturday afternoon.
On the basis of their showing against Australia in the tournament opener, the prospect of an Australia v England final appears the most appealing option in determining which nation deserves the World Cup title. However, in the three matches England have featured in since opening night, there has been a lack of sustained quality to inspire the confidence needed to orchestrate the short-term plan mandated to Wayne Bennett by the English hierarchy. Coupled with the inspired showing by Tonga over the course of the tournament, England face a tough prospect on Saturday afternoon, not only in the form of their opponent, but in establishing the cohesion required to realistically challenge Australia in a match of such significant importance. While a 30-point margin may indicate an imposing display against Papua New Guinea, the reality of the English completion rate tells a vastly different story of a side lacking the control required to withstand the attacking onslaught posed by the likes of Australia and most pertinently, Tonga. Retaining the same squad that triumphed in Melbourne last Sunday, Gareth Widdop has once again been named at fullback in a move which may see James Roby and Josh Hodgson play the majority of the fixture on-field together, with the regular Canberra rake pushing into the halves in order to straighten the English attack. Having suffered the heartbreak of losing to New Zealand in the dying stages of the 2013 World Cup semi final, the chance to secure an opportunity foreign to the entire English squad may be the inspiration needed to spur Wayne Bennett's side to victory.
Last meeting: This pair have never met at World Cup level, or in a full international. The closest either side has come to a contest is the 2006 Federation Shield, where an England A side played Tonga twice - first in a round robin format, then in the final. England A won both matches, first 40-18 then 32-14.
Who to watch: In what is unquestionably the biggest game of his career, Ata Hingano will be looking to deliver Tonga to their first World Cup final in a move that could have huge ramifications for his short-term future. Facing off against an English outfit boasting a wealth of experience, the unsung hero of Tonga's ascendance will be aware of the role needed to qualify for the unlikeliest of finals, while being mindful of ensuring the gravity of the occasion doesn't result in him overplaying his hand. Featuring in just 15 matches in first grade to date, the 20-year-old playmaker will be looking to move past the Warriors mid-week decision to recruit Blake Green for 2018 and press a case that despite his limited experience, he possesses the qualities required to succeed as a regular first-grader.
Having debuted in first grade as a 16-year-old, English centre Kallum Watkins has been touted as a player to watch for close to a decade. Amassing multiple premierships with Leeds and over 200 matches to boot, Watkins will be looking to make a statement on Saturday as he faces off against veteran Michael Jennings in a personal duel with the potential to elevate England into their first World Cup final since 1995. Impressing throughout the tournament alongside Jermaine McGillivray on the right edge, the 25-year-old will be eager to make the most of his talents and send a message that while the English forwards may be renown for their ability, the outside backs are just as capable of causing havoc for opponents.
My tip: Having pushed the Kangaroos to a point rarely seen in recent times, the potential for England to triumph is apparent, however a substandard showing against Papua New Guinea last week is far from the ideal preparation coach Wayne Bennett would be hoping for heading into such an important match. If England can maintain consistency they should be too strong, but against a Tongan outfit that has claimed a Tier One scalp already, the foregone conclusion many pundits may have expected in this fixture is far from assured. England by 8.
1. William Hopoate 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Michael Jennings 4. Konrad Hurrell 5. David Fusitua 6. Tuimoala Lolohea 7. Ata 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. Peni Terepo 16. Tevita Pangai Junior 17. Ben Murdoch-Masila
1. Gareth Widdop 2. Jermaine McGillvary 3. Kallum Watkins 4. John Bateman 5. Ryan Hall 6. Kevin Brown 7. Luke Gale 8. Chris Hill 9. Josh Hodgson 10. James Graham 11. Sam Burgess 12. Elliot Whitehead 13. Sean O'Loughlin 14. Alex Walmsley 15. Thomas Burgess 16. Ben Currie 17. James Roby