A massive upsurge in Tongan support is expected for Saturday’s Test against Australia at Eden Park as Kristian Woolf’s men attempt to take another step towards their long-term goal of winning the 2021 World Cup.
After downing Great Britain 14-6 in Hamilton last weekend, the Jason Taumalolo-led Tongans have now beaten two of the IRL’s top three teams.
Australia is next on their dance card and Tonga will be strengthened by the return of Tevita Pangai jnr, Joe Ofahengaue and Kotoni Staggs for the Oceania Cup Test against the Kangaroos.
The triumph over the touring Lions is considered by team insiders, who include new assistant coaches Anthony Griffin and Dean Young, to be as significant as Tonga’s stunning defeat of the Kiwis as it reaffirmed the nation’s standing as a genuine rival for the big three of Australia, England and New Zealand.
Woolf told his players after their historic Test against the Kangaroos a year ago that he believed they were capable of winning the 2021 World Cup and there is now renewed confidence within the Tonga camp that they can achieve that goal after overcoming difficult circumstances to beat Great Britain.
Match Highlights: Tonga Invitational v Great Britain
The team has been forced to play under the name of Tonga Kau To’a (Tonga Invitational XIII) after political wrangling disrupted preparations and threatened to leave organisers of the Oceania Cup and GB Lions tour millions of dollars out of pocket.
However, Tonga’s victory combined with the elimination of the All Blacks from the Rugby World Cup just hours later is considered cause for a double celebration by the promoters of Saturday’s night’s triple-header at Eden Park, which will also features New Zealand versus Great Britain and Fiji versus Samoa.
The 9,420 crowd in Hamilton was disappointing compared with the support Mate Ma’a Tonga had attracted since the 2017 World Cup. But the match was played against a backdrop of confusion caused by internal politics and clashed with the RWC semi-final between the All Blacks and England.
After the passionate display by the players, who refused to play under the Tonga National Rugby League board after Woolf was bizarrely sacked as coach, the "red sea" – as Tonga fans have become known – are expected to turn out in large numbers this weekend.
The attempt to remove Woolf and appoint 71-year-old former Kiwis and Warriors coach Frank Endacott seems even harder to fathom after the performance against the Lions, which confirmed Tonga’s place as one of the game’s top nations.
Not only did Tonga out-muscle Great Britain but the players reaffirmed their pride for the red jersey with a determined defensive performance that restricted the Wayne Bennett-coached Lions to just one try late in the match.
The win was even more impressive given that Pangai jnr and Ofahengaue were unavailable due to suspension, Staggs withdrew for personal reasons, and halfback Ata Hingano was ruled out with a shoulder injury sustained at training late last week.
Tonga perform stirring Sipi Tau
Teen utility Fanitesi Niu, who is yet to make his NRL debut for the Broncos, only learned before last Friday’s captain’s run that he would be playing at fullback in a reshuffled backline, with Will Hopoate moved to the halves in place of Hingano, while Konrad Hurrell replaced Staggs.
Niu was a revelation on debut and is expected to retain his spot, with Hurrell likely to make way for Staggs. But Niu is certain to be more thoroughly tested by Australia’s kickers than he was against Great Britain.
Woolf faces a selection headache to decide which forwards miss out to accommodate Pangai jnr and Ofahengaue after the Tonga pack steam-rolled the Lions, with prop Siosiua Taukeiaho carrying the ball for 254 metres and fellow middle forwards Jason Taumalolo and Addin Fonua-Blake both running 170 metres.
Frizell eyes Tonga after special win in own backyard
Andrew Fifita ran 104 metres off the interchange bench, while Taukeaiho made 43 tackles – the third highest of the match behind Great Britain’s Josh Hodgson (53) and James Graham (47).
With the return of Pangai jnr, Ofahengaue and Staggs, Tonga will field an almost full strength line-up against the Kangaroos. The exception is Manly hooker Manase Fainu - the most notable absentee - after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery.
The team has also benefited from a staff, who all boast NRL experience. The establishment of the Tonga Invitational XIII retained Woolf as coach even though he was confirmed less than three weeks ago.
Long-term assistant David Tanagata-Toa, who is on the North Queensland coaching staff, has been joined in camp by Young, who is set to continue under Paul McGregor at St George Illawarra next season, and Griffin, the former Penrith and Brisbane mentor.
It has been an ambition of Woolf since he took over as Tonga coach in a 2014 end-of-season Test against the Mal Meninga-coached Papua New Guinea to secure more regular and meaningful matches for the Pacific nation.
By doing so Woolf believed that Tonga could become an international powerhouse and after qualifying for the 2017 World Cup semi-finals the team has played Tests against Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain in the past 12 months.
Australia won 34-16 against Tonga last October, while the Kiwis triumphed 34-14 in the mid-season Test at Mt Smart Stadium, meaning Woolf’s men need to beat Meninga’s Kangaroos by 22 points on Saturday night to secure the new Oceania Cup Trophy.
However, a win against the world champions would be a huge statement of intent and another massive shot in the arm for the international game, which is gaining momentum since the rise of Tonga at the 2017 World Cup. Fiji also made the semi-finals that year.
With Meninga overseeing the return of Kangaroo tours at the of next season, the 2020 Oceania Cup will feature New Zealand, Tonga and the winner of this year's Pool B tournament between Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa.
Woolf and his players would fancy their chances of claiming Tonga's first silverware, if they don't do so on Saturday night.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.