If the 2017 Rugby League World Cup was a line in the sand moment for Tonga and how folks view international rugby league, the two years since haven't exactly played out in a best case scenario. Tonga's first game after that World Cup was a win over Samoa and at that point, Samoa were a couple laps behind the Tongans before a loss to Australia rounded out 2018 with the good vibes still in tact.
This year, Tonga lost to Aotearoa in the mid-season international window. Two fairly under-whelming performances from Tonga against the big dawgs perhaps showed the limitations of this particular Tongan group, although the three Tests since the World Cup have featured numerous younger players coming in to showcase some solid depth. That's kinda the major/only positive from Tonga's on-field antics during this period as there has been a clear intention to ensure that a younger wave has a Tongan pathway.
Unfortunately, following those three Tests, the Tongan team (players and coach) found themselves in a stick situation with their governing body. This was interesting to observe as other governing bodies scrambled to keep things moving, knowing that Tonga bring with them a hefty group of supporters and that means moola. Dramas aren't good though, especially dramas between teams and their own governing bodies and this is only amplified when coming after losing two of their three games post-WC.
In a World Cup 9s pool alongside Samoa, Cook Islands and Fiji, Tonga only managed a win against Fiji. Safe to say that was a bit disappointing, although Tonga did promote a bunch of younger players and well, it's 9s footy where things are far less predictable. The truth is that Tonga have gone 1-2 in Tests and then 1-2 in their 9s campaign, as well as a major drama that at the very least has unsettled the foundations of Tongan footy.
The World Cup was meant to be a revolution kinda point and yet, in terms of results nothing has really changed for Tonga. Of course, now there is always a level of excitement following Tonga because of the players available and this always offers a sense of optimisim which is no different for Saturday's game against Great Britain in Hamilton. Given that Great Britain are effectively the third big fishy in the rugby league awa, this game is nicely set up to see if Tonga can rectify their wee predicament; losses to Australia, Aotearoa and Great Britain post-WC would be a bummer for Tonga.
Tonga's depth is such that the team named by coach Kristian Woolf is about as full strength as possible. Having Manase Fainu coming off the bench would be nice and the presence of Moeaki Fotuaika would add another powerful middle forward to the mix, yet in Siliva Havili and Sione Katoa Tonga have decent dummy halves and there's no shortage of powerful middle forwards. Even without Tevita Pangai Junior, Ben Murdoch-Masila comes in to start as an edge forward and he's as big, as mobile as Pangai Junior. Other than the dramas, this Tongan group is incredibly settled and enjoy the luxury of chemistry after rolling out a similar playing group for the past few years.
Unfortunately, this hasn't translated to better performances and wins. Tonga again rely on Tuimoala Lolohea and Ata Hingano in the halves, which isn't so bad considering Lolohea plays at a solid level alongside his Great Britain opponent Jackson Hastings. Hingano played 14 games of Canterbury Cup this year and doesn't appear to have much of a route to NRL footy with Canberra Raiders at the moment. Both Lolohea and Hingano are young, developing and could start to shine as they settle into international footy, but the blueprint to defeat Tonga is still going to involve these two coming under a heap of pressure.
Great Britain's forwards aren't going to allow Tonga to burst up the guts, win quick play-the-balls and give their play-makers time and space to get busy with. Great Britain has a forward pack that looks about as good as Australia or Aotearoa's packs named this weekend and I suspect the mission for GB will be to kick long, keep Tonga down their end and hold the footy. Tonga haven't been able to stop teams scoring points recently and with Josh Hodgson pulling strings at hooker, GB will be confident of their schemes to keep Tonga out of the contest.
Tonga will be energized by their situation, as the Tonga Invitational and there will be an eagerness to give a big ol' 'upto?' to the Tongan board via a slick win over GB. That kinda pride is a lot to play for and we have seen pride come through immensely on this Tongan journey, so channeling the angst against the board into their footy could make things funky.
Ultimately though, I see this going the other way and that will add another weird layer to Tongan rugby league. In this context of international rugby league, visibility and relevance comes directly from winning. Recent dramas add some niggle to the situation, all of which can be eased if Tonga pull another upset out in Hamilton.
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Peace and love 27.