The rise of Tongan rugby league in recent years has laid the platform for a new wave of potential internationals to come through and follow the example set by the Tongan leaders. After a bunch of NRL rounds, there are a few intriguing players who could add to Tonga's squad and at the very least offer greater competition for spots, or in the case of Manase Fainu, genuinely add to the top-17.
I expect Fainu to opt for Tonga over Aotearoa, with Fainu having been part of NZRL's Taurahere system as well as playing Junior Kiwis. There were a few sightings of Fainu in and around the Tongan camp for their game vs Australia last year and a combination of wanting to represent Tonga, as well as Aotearoa having plenty of dummy half depth (Issac Luke, Brandon Smith, Danny Levi) leaves me fairly confident that Fainu will roll with Tonga.
The funk here, sits in Fainu's compeition for the Tonga dummy half duties which have previously revolved around Siliva Havili and Sione Katoa. They have been the combo throughout the rise of Tonga and the stability of Tonga's spine, with these two hookers, Ata Hingano, Tuimoala Lolohea and Will Hopoate has been low key crucial in Tonga's success. So far this year though, Fainu is in a far stronger position than both Havili and Katoa.
Havili barely plays hooker for Canberra Raiders, primarily playing as a middle forward where his speed and mobility offers a unique package. Katoa hasn't been in great form and nor have Penrith Panthers been playing very well, which leaves him in a precarious position given how Fainu's blowing teams away off the bench for Manly Sea Eagles.
Fainu (44.3mins) is almost averaging more minutes per game than Manly's starting hooker Apisai Koroisau (46.5mins) and Fainu's 3.7runs/64m, 1.4 offloads per game is a lot better than Korisau's 3.5runs/34m, 0 offloads. Fainu averages 2.6 tackle busts per game, compared to Koroisau's 0.5 and Fainu dabbles in kicking, averaging 0.7 to Koroisau's 0.9.
All of that comes together to suggest that Fainu is a slick operator and as I'm kinda confident that Havili will keep his starting gig for Tonga, let's compare Fainu's stats to those of Katoa...
Fainu: 44.3mins, 5.7 runs, 64m, 2.6tb, 1.4 offloads, 0.7k.
Katoa: 45.4mins, 1.7r, 14m, 0tb, 0.1 offloads, 0.7k.
There is very little reason for Katoa to be selected ahead of Fainu on that basis and the prospect of Fainu doing his thing, behind the Tongan forward pack is enticing. To the point where injecting Fainu into this Tongan group could see them hit a nek level as Fainu is far more dynamic than Havili and Katoa. Havili is steady though and his class would be complimented by Fainu's x-factor.
As far as other Tongan prospects go, Moeaki Fotuaika was in Tongan squads last year but didn't play and the Gold Coast Titans forward has had a solid start to the season averaging 33mins, 9.5runs and 91m. Fotuaika hasn't confirmed which way he'll go in terms of rep footy as he was on the same Junior Kiwis bench as Fainu and has a similar history, but all signs point to him being a long-term Tongan international. Footy freak note: Jason Taumalolo captained the 2012 Junior Kiwis team that had Moeaki's late brother Mosese starting at prop.
The sneaky one is Mangere East Hawks junior Ofahiki Ogden, who is thriving at the Bulldogs this season. Averaging 32mins, 7.8runs/76m and 1.2 tackle busts, Ogden is a mobile middle forward, who would slot in seamlessly into the Tongan forward pack stylistically. Also an option depending on outside back availability is Sione Katoa with Cronulla Sharks.
This is the new status-quo as we are going to have a steady flow of Tongan-eligible youngsters entering the NRL each year and with the leaders setting the tone, it's easy to see Tongan rugby league continuing this positive trend.
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Peace and love 27.