2019 Spring Internationals: Aotearoa Kiwis and Tonga Invitational Things


Last week's loss to Australia is best described as under-whelming and Aotearoa Kiwis coach Michael Maguire doesn't appear to be fuckin' around with under-whelming performances. Unfortunately for us kiwis, this was the kind of performance that we expect as we have always endured an up and down nature to games against Australia and no matter how nifty the last game was, supporting Kiwis rugby league means that an under-whelmer is always around the corner.

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In the aftermath of last weekend's internationals, I went a step further pondering rugby league in/from Aotearoa. I recently came to the conclusion that Aotearoa Warriors are cursed, in every way and that's simply an easy way to describe all the shenanigans and - to keep it full hundies - the blatant bullshit coming out of the club. There is no other explanation and instead of regularly trying to dissect the Warriors woes, they are just cursed.

The Kiwis aren't quite cursed, yet there ain't no steady on with the Kiwis. Even the Kiwi Ferns don't perform at a high level consistently and this comes together for a rather depressing vibe around rugby league teams from Aotearoa. I'd much rather these teams are consistently solid, that's never really been the case and as fans, we are rewarded with a few slick games, then the shambles.

Completing at 66 percent against Australia, is a shambles. The Kiwis lads didn't show up against Australia and while the first-half was bearable considering how the Kiwis hung in the contest and Australia were a tad lucky with their points. Then the implosion came and fair play to the Kangaroos as their team is obviously stacked, however Aotearoa gloriously imploded.

As a rugby league joker, I was intrigued about which Kiwis players are really about that business of becoming legends. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was incredible vs Australia; 17 runs for 167m @ 9.82m/run, 1 try assist, 4 tackle busts, 3 offloads, 11 passes and 6 kicks defused without an error. That level of footy in the international arena, against the best team in the world is exactly what takes your rugby league status to nek levels and this is in hefty contrast to that of Shaun Johnson.

Johnson tends to be unfairly treated and I view this differently to most as I believe expectations around Johnson are far too high, hence he disappoints. What's interesting in Maguire's decision to roll with Kieran Foran over Johnson for this weekend's game vs Great Britain, is that this the only environment and circumstance where Johnson can legit be dropped. The Warriors would never drop Johnson, Cronulla Sharks can't drop Johnson (other than telling fans he's battlin’ hammy issue or whatever) and usually, Aotearoa can't drop Johnson because there is no one better to take his place.

Right now, whether it's Foran, Jahrome Hughes, Kodi Nikorima or Dylan Brown, Maguire at least has options and if you don't perform adequately then unluggy. Overall, this is good because Aotearoa has halves options for the first time in my life and such depth that has been simmering beneath the surface keeps players honest. A couple Johnson errors that led directly to Australian points and Foran gets his crack.

There are no other changes to the Kiwis backline, while the forward pack has Zane Tetevano and Joseph Tapine coming in to start alongside Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. Tapine is the big inclusion and a reminder that some big-dawg Kiwis forwards were absent vs Australia and are still absent here (Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, James Fisher-Harris).

Tetevano was one of the most robust Kiwis forwards last week, the only Kiwis forward to average 10m/run with 7 runs for 74m @ 10.57m/ru. There is a clear pecking order in play with Maguire as well, considering Tapine bumps Adam Blair back to the bench and Braden Hamlin-Uele out of the squad. Hamlin-Uele had just 1 run for 9m in his 23 minutes, which was no where near his NRL production with the Sharks and for context; Corey Harawira-Naera played 19mins with 4 runs for 33m.

The action at hooker has to improve as well and Maguire's decision to stick with Jahrome Hughes at dummy half failed, miserably. Hughes is a great talent and I suspect he will step up with a better performance vs Great Britain, in 29mins vs Australia though, Hughes had more missed tackles than run metres. Hughes registered zero run metres and missed 5 tackles, which amounts to a awkward negative impact - the type of which Australia froth over.

Maguire's the only bloke selecting Hughes as a bench dummy half and as Hughes plays in the halves for Melbourne Storm and Brandon Smith plays as a middle forward off the bench, Maguire is completely flipping the situation around. That's all good, when it works and things will be better this weekend; Kiwis can't win games with the bench hooker missing more tackles than their run metres.

I'm optimistic about Maguire's experiments, considering that Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was low key solid at centre. 11 runs for 112m @ 10.18m/run, 1 line break, 1 try, 6 tackle busts, 1 offload and 1 missed tackle for 92.3 percent tackle efficiency, all of which was a couple levels above Joseph Manu.

This kinda sums up the whole package from last weekend as some things worked, a lot didn't work. Now we see the reality of this Kiwis culture, the mana of the squad as you win or learn and the Kiwis have an opportunity to bounce back. In bouncing back strongly, the Kiwis will offer some hope that things are genuinely changing with kiwi rugby league and anything less would be the status-quo.

Flowing on from last week, Great Britain are in the same position as Aotearoa after being touched up by the Tonga Invitational. That game felt a bit like an ambush, partly in the sense of GB perhaps looking towards the Tests vs Aotearoa, but more in the sense of Tonga playing with a certain intensity, effort and attitude that felt like a direct response to their off-field dramas.

I'm fascinated by how Tonga back that up against Australia as anything could happen, especially if the Tongan camp feel like they have a point to prove. My observations from last week kept coming back to the shenanigans of the Tongan board, largely due to the fact that nothing about the Tonga Invitational felt any different to Tonga ... Tonga National Rugby League Tonga.

Tonga Invitational still had playing attire full of sponsors. This may seem like nothing, but when you consider the situation with regards to Tongan rugby league, Tonga Invitational had a cluster of sponsors despite the greater situation. One would assume, that those sponsors came via the TNRL pipeline and thus, with a rebel Tongan team playing, sponsors would be less inclined to trouble TNRL by supporting a team of rebels.

To me, this means that Tonga Invitational sussed their own sponsors and that these sponsors are fully aligned with the Kristian Woolf/Jason Taumalolo side of the equation. This then results in TNRL having minimal leverage over the playing group as Tonga Invitational did this all without any support from TNRL and that folks, is bonkers. This is testament to the people involved in Tonga Invitational, from Woolf to team managers and the players who sat in their power and spread joy to their people.

We'll end with doubling down on TNRL being extremely weird. TNRL have no leverage over Woolf and the players, all it took was for the players to realise their leverage and power in this situation. It's loss after loss after loss for TNRL, while the folks that they were trying to control are the ones in power.

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Peace and love 27.