Representative Round: PREVIEW: New Zealand v Tonga Men's International
Footy returns to New Zealand with a World Cup dress rehearsal
National pride is on the line in Rugby League's first trip to New Zealand since the COVID pandemic struck. New Zealand will go head to head with the might of Tonga as both sides begin to see how they'll line up for the end of season World Cup. It's important to note in the case of Tonga, that this match only has NRL talent (no Super League players) and players that aren't playing State of Origin, so this will be far from their strongest line-up that'll play for World Cup glory.
Starting with the Kiwis, and it's going to be an emotional week for all involved, as they will return home for the first time and have the opportunity to play for friends and family. This side will be looking for revenge after an upset loss to Tonga at the World Cup which saw their hopes of snatching the crown diminish the following week at the hands of Fiji. Going into this year's World Cup, it is a similar position with a group draw which on paper, puts them in with a shot at a 3-0 record and a lopsided for and against.
It's safe to say a lot has changed, Kiwis coach Michael Maguire will coach his first match following his dramatic sacking at Concord as well as a new look spine which will include debutant Dylan Brown, it's a mix of young and old in this squad with eight potential debutants. But as always in international footy, it's all about how the side plays together. It'll be up to Madge to get the troops fired up for a match that is likely to dominated by a sea of red in the crowd. The match will be won and lost in the forward pack and with the form of James Fisher-Harris and Joe Tapine, it should be enough to offset the loss of Jared Waerea-Hargraves who's out due to injury.
Tonga have been the spearheads of a resurgence in international football as of late, with a sensational upset of Australia prior to the world shutting down. There's no doubt that the small island nation has developed quite the array of talent that has stormed onto the NRL scene as of late including Haumole Olakau'atu who has turned down the opportunity to pull on the NSW jumper, to represent his country this weekend. Unfortunately, three players that won't be joining them are outside backs Daniel Tupou Staggs and Siosifa Talakai who despite being named will try and stop QLD sealing the series on Sunday night.
Another interesting tidbit is the absence of Tonga coach Kristian Woolf who's unable to make the trip to NZ due to his commitments in England with his high-flying St Helens side. Instead, his place is taken by defensive guru Dean Young, with an imposing forward pack and skilful outside backs, it is an impressive line-up put together by Young and his advisors. The challenge is the inexperience in the halves with a likely combination of Kotoni Staggs and Talatau Amone who are yet to play in the halves together.
Who to watch: In what many have said has been an underwhelming season by the Roosters thus far, it's safe to say Joey Manu has continued to develop into one of the game's most dangerous attacking exploits. When Manu has been closer to the ball and involved in the Roosters attack, they've been a far more dangerous side, his ability to step up and take control has been on display countless times in club land this season. Manu's ball playing ability and clever footwork will be handy for a New Zealand side trying to build momentum heading into the end of season World Cup.
He's the man that helped rise Tonga to the position as an international powerhouse and after a slight drop off in form last year, it's safe to say Jason Taumalolo has found inklings of his career best form this season. Playing in a much greater role this season, Taumalolo has shown why the Cowboys gave him a lifetime contract in 2017. Now carrying the pride of his nation, look for Taumalolo to guide his impressive forward pack to victory over New Zealand.
The favourite: New Zealand are the favourites with the bookies. Just in case we forgot, their last meeting was in 2019 and the Kiwis were too strong for Tonga, but the sides will be very different to what we saw three years ago in Auckland.
My tip: Well, international footy is back and in a big way with the clash of the giants of Pasifika rugby league. With these sides playing the first match for their country since 2019, there's going to be a lot of national pride at stake. New Zealand have strike power out-wide, but I doubt whether it will be enough to counter the brutality of Tonga's line-up which has certified hit-men all over the place. Tonga by 4.
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Tonga Form Guide
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