Tonga will again roll out an exceptional forward pack against Aotearoa, although there are a few niggly selection nuggets in the backline for coach Kristian Woolf to suss out. With such a stacked forward pack, there will be tough decisions to be made and this will cause Woolf a few headaches and whether or not players from England's Super League are available could have a low key impact on the Tongan squad.
Here is my predicted Tonga 17...
Fullback: William Hopoate.
Wings: David Fusitu'a, Daniel Tupou.
Centres: Solomone Kata, Marion Seve.
Halves: Ata Hingano, Chanel Harris-Tavita.
Middles: Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
Edges: Manu Ma'u, Tevita Pangai Junior.
Hooker: Siliva Halivi.
Bench: Manase Fainu, Peni Terepo, Addin Fonua-Blake, Moeaki Fotuaika.
The back three is settled and then we slide into the centres where Solomone Kata will likely be selected from reserve grade. There are options here though depending on the fitness of Michael Jennings, while George and Robert Jennings are mainly playing on the wing for Eels and Tigers respectively, but could be centre options. The low key contender I like, is Marion Seve who has been doing a solid job for Melbourne Storm and while he doesn't get any big hype, he forced his way on to the bench early in the season and has since pounced at opportunities on the wing and at centre.
Watch out for Kotoni Staggs as a possibility to lace up for Tonga also. Staggs is eligible and if he is keen, then a Staggs/Seve combo would be fairly sharp.
Tonga's biggest asset has been their forwards, closely followed by an established play-making combination which can't be over-estimated. Right now though, Ata Hingano is playing reserve grade for Mounties and Tuimoala Lolohea is over in England, so depending on Lolohea's availability, Tonga may need a new half to partner Hingano.
I want to throw Chanel Harris-Tavita into the mix, although I'm not completely sure he's Tongan eligible. I may be jumping the gun and that leaves Tonga in a tricky spot where they could go from having a settled play-making group, to one certified half. The alternative would be injecting someone like Staggs, Tevita Pangai Junior or Sione Katoa into the halves.
Obviously, if an alternative solution is found, the impact flows into other areas of the Tongan squad. This may not be an issue though as Tonga have Siliva Havili, Manase Fainu and Sione Katoa as hooking options - one of whom could fill in as a half - and we all know that there is no shortage of Tongan forwards.
Katoa has been below par this season for Penrith Panthers, so my preference would be for Havili to start and Fainu coming off the bench. Havili is a Tongan veteran and while he has been playing as a middle forward for Canberra Raiders, Havili has the credential to start at hooker.
Jason Taumalolo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Andrew Fifita, Addin Fonua-Blake, Tevita Pangai Junior, Peni Terepo and Manu Ma'u effectively pick themselves. My projected toughest decision for Woolf to make in the forwards will be whether to go with Moeaki Fotuaika or Tevita Tatola; Tatola played the mid-year Test vs Samoa, neither played vs Australia.
Tatola has been impressive under Wayne Bennett for South Sydney Rabbitohs, while Fotuaika has emerged as a genuine freak for Gold Coast Titans. I'd go for Fotuaika, but all good either way.
Fotuaika and Fainu have both played Junior Kiwis footy, both been in and around Tongan squads over the past 12 months as well. I expect them to opt for Tonga and given that they are both playing lovely footy, this squad will offer greater clarity around their representative futures.
Another note: I'm writing this before Queensland's squad is selected. Joe Ofahengaue played both games for Tonga last year and if available, he'd probably win selection ahead of Fotuaika and Tatola this time around. However, all the predicted Queensland squads have Ofahengaue on the bench for Queensland and that could see Ofahengaue ruled out. Remember that Agnatius Paasi pulled out of Tonga's camp late last year to join Aotearoa Kiwis and while Pangai Junior has turned down New South Wales, Ofahengaue may take his chance with Queensland.
This is all extremely fluid and purely down to the individual. What isn't fluid and is extremely solid, is the leadership in this Tongan group and while the bigger names are viewed as being the leaders of this new wave, Taukeiaho has emerged as a low key primary leader. When Taumalolo or Pangai Junior talk about representing Tonga, Taukeiaho's name is mentioned as someone who the discuss things with and outline their vision.
Taukeiaho's craft is now on par with that of Taumalolo or anyone else in the NRL. His leadership aligns with his standing in rugby league and the respect he commands via his actions.
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