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5:30am Wed October 19, 2022
Pool Matches - Week 1 - Totally Wicked Stadium, St Helens - Crowd: 10409

Pool Matches - Week 1: Tonga v Papua New Guinea preview

Pacific big guns go toe to toe

In the first match of Group D, the Pacific island powerhouses of Tonga and Papua New Guinea go head to head at Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens. Both island nations have had strong success in recent years and will be looking to get their World Cup campaigns off to a strong start.

For Tonga, they've become the quiet achievers of international football, surprising the rugby league world with strong victories over Australia and Great Britain in 2019 before COVID decimated international football over the past two and a half years. Kristian Woolf has named a strong side at his disposal for this World Cup and are favourites to take out the group. They were very dominant in their warm-up game thrashing France 48-12 with David Fifita grabbing a hattrick.

If there's a con to this side, it's definitely the lack of experience in their spine. It was on full display in the test against New Zealand earlier this year and are missing Kotoni Staggs who has undergone a shoulder reconstruction. This campaign however, they do regain the services of Tui Lolohea who was absent from the test match due to Super League commitments. Their forwards remain an imposing pack and they've been bolstered by the inclusion of Felise Kaufusi and David Fifita to an already intimidating pack which also includes Siosiua Taukeiaho and Addin Fonua-Blake. That being said, they will be missing the services of Jason Taumalolo for the opening two pool matches carrying over an NRL suspension. 

Papua New Guinea are another side that can carry the tag of quiet achievers, bursting onto the international scene before the arrival of COVID with a shock upset victory over Great Britain to cap an embarrassing tour for the Lions. But they've gone from strength to strength, upsetting Fiji in the mid-season test match and with the inclusion of Super League and Championship players, they are hot tips to progress far in this tournament.

The Kumuls backline has been bolstered with big guns Alex Johnston and Xavier Coates making themselves available alongside the likes of Nene MacDonald, Justin Olam and Lachie Lam. Young hooker Edwin Ipape was a standout at dummy half this season, winning Championship player of the year with Leigh and was instrumental in guiding his side back up into the Super League. Their pack of forwards are a tough group that will batter the Tongan forwards into submission with Rhyse Martin, McKenzie Yei and Nixon Putt among the players to look out for in the Kumuls pack. 

Last meeting: In head to head meetings between these two nations, Papua New Guinea have defeated Tonga on each occasion, with the exception of their inaugural meeting in 1995 World Cup, when the two sides played in a 28-28 draw. Their previous World Cup meeting was in the 2000 tournament where PNG won 30-22. 

Who to watch: After making the defection from Australia to the pacific island of Tonga, this tournament shapes as make or break for edge forward David Fifita. Fifita is coming off a quiet and uneventful 2022. This tournament is critical for his value and also a chance to suit himself for clubs that may be interested in his services, with the forward coming off contract at the conclusion of the 2023 season. Watch for Fifita to be at his damaging best on the edge for Tonga, if the early warm-up matches serve as a form guide, Fifita will be damaging close to the line. 

Similarly, a lot is at stake for PNG halfback Lachlan Lam. The Kumuls number seven has had a strong end of season for the Leigh Centurions after his mid-season arrival from the Roosters, guiding Leigh back into Super League alongside his father as coach. Lam and Papua New Guinea have a big advantage in this World Cup with a partnership with Kyle Laybutt stretching numerous internationals. This will be a big boost for PNG's chances to advance far in this tournament. If he produces a performance like he did against Fiji earlier this year, then Lam is set for a big tournament.

The favourite: Tonga are favourites for this match-up. 

My tip: Whilst the PNG side will never stop trying, I favour the experience of the Tongan side to get up in this clash to establish who is the dominant side in Group D especially in the forwards where they have a substantial advantage over the Kumuls. This match has the potential to be one of the highlights of the group stage if the stars come out to play. Tonga by 6.