On the back of Tonga and Aotearoa naming their wider squads, as well as 19-wahine Kiwi Ferns squad, Martin Taupau announced that he would be returning to represent Samoa. There are a bunch of little wrinkles from these squads that I'm going to touch on and it's important to offer this now as both Tonga and Aotearoa will narrow their squads down after this weekend's round of footy. I'll save my full breakdown of the Kiwi Ferns squad for the coming days as that has already been narrowed down, then there will also be a Samoan squad to face Papa New Guinea to suss out.
I'll start with Taupau's move back to Samoa and I love it. From an Aotearoa Kiwis perspective, losing a player like Taupau is always going to be a bit of a blow, however as I rolled through my Kiwis top-17 and all the variations on offer, there is no shortage of middle forwards in the mix. Especially, of the younger bracket and Taupau's departure opens the door for someone else to get their opportunity.
The best way to put Taupau's decision into some context, both Taupau and Jason Taumalolo started their international careers with Samoa and Tonga respectively. Both played against each other in the 2013 Pacific Test and then went on to represent Aotearoa, now Taupau's return to Samoa is a huge boost for Toa Samoa - who have slid drastically behind Tonga in the Toko-Uso battle.
I'll save much of my Samoa thoughts for when their squad is announced, but in terms of what this decision means for Toa Samoa, it feels more important than what happened with Tonga prior to the World Cup. That's only because of where Samoa currently sit and if the status-quo remained, I was struggling to see where the improvement and development for Samoa would come from. Taupau has effectively taken responsibility for Samoa rugby league and regardless of whether any other Samoan-Kiwis follow Taupau, or if Taupau is a lone soldier, Taupau is now a Samoan leader.
To set the scene, think of who Tonga's rival now appears to be. Tonga vs Aotearoa is being celebrated as this brewing rivalry, but as a proud South Aucklander, I know for damn sure that Tonga vs Samoa is a far greater rivalry. However, Samoa haven't played their part in that rivalry and so the Tonga vs Aotearoa fixture has been bumped up to the top spot.
I know Tonga vs Samoa is the big game. Ideally, I'd want to see a tri-series between Tonga, Samoa and Aotearoa in Aotearoa to give us all angles. This is only possible with Samoa rising to the Tonga/Aotearoa level and that starts with Taupau.
Tauapu's decision now sets up some intriguing choices for the likes of Jamayne Isaako, Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaac Liu, Ken Maumalo, Isaiah Papali'i and even Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. They are the Samoan-Kiwis named in Aotearoa's wider squad and seeing such a leader like Taupau make the move, along with the knowledge that Samoa needs to improve, could lead to some funky decisions.
What would suck, for Aotearoa, Samoa and Tonga is if players wait until they miss the final Kiwis squad and then decide to represent Samoa or Tonga. The beauty of of these decisions from the tokos/usos is that each individual has laid out a clear priority and such clarity in the decision making from anyone who has made the switch, is what fills us with good vibes. These players have made Samoa or Tonga the priority and aren't making Aotearoa the main goal, then if that doesn't work they use their second option.
Think about Tevita Pangai Junior; he made a crystal clear move to make Tonga his priority and didn't wait to see if he cracked New South Wales. That is the most important aspect of these decisions and as many of the toko/usos in the NRL were either born in Aotearoa/Australia, or played all their junior footy in Aotearoa/Australia, there is an abundance of players who sit in the grey area of international eligibility. As long as players are clear with their priorities, it's a beautiful time to be a rugby league fan.
Another example of this is Agnatius Paasi. Having been named in Tonga's squad to face Australia last year, Paasi pulled out to join Aotearoa Kiwis on their England tour and has now been named in the Kiwis squad, not Tonga's squad. Faced with a choice, Paasi opted for Aotearoa and even though there's a high chance Paasi won't make the final Kiwis squad, he has made a clear decision.
The most downbuzz outcome, would be if players who don't make the final Kiwis squad then become available for Samoa. If Samoa wait to name their squad until after the Kiwis squad, then shit gets weird.
More examples are Moeaki Fotuaika and Manase Fainu for Tonga. Both have played for Aotearoa's Junior Kiwis and if they really wanted to, both would be able to play Origin with Fotuaika spending a heap of his life on the Gold Coast and Fainu born and bred in Sydney. Fainu's only connection to Aotearoa is apparently his Maori mother, so him rejecting Aotearoa isn't really a big deal and perhaps him rejecting New South Wales could be a more notable headline.
Both Fotuaika and Fainu have made clear decisions to be the new wave of Tongan internationals. Both spent time in Tongan camps last year and that's some low key classy development work from the Tongan staff as they need to ensure that there is a bridge between NRL footy and international footy; come into camp, feel the vibes and get prepared.
John Asiata's selection is crucial for Tonga as he gives them a solid halves option, although it's a bit weird given Asiata has already represented Samoa. Of course, Asiata has power of choice and his switch is timely considering that Ata Hingano is unavailble and I wonder whether the need for a Tongan half influenced Asiata's switch.
Of all the players named in Tonga's squad, the only one who feels like they'd leave the Tongan group if another offer comes in is Kotoni Staggs. Staggs is going to be excessively fun to watch for Tonga considering how powerful and versatile he is, meaning it won't be long until New South Wales come knocking.
I don't bring that up to highlight Staggs' likely flip-flop, this is all about a Tongan squad that has immense foundations. Roosters forward and Marist Saints junior (Auckland) Sitili Tupouniua has also earned selection for Tonga's wider squad, but is unlikely to make the final squad. Tupouniua is the only other Tongan squad member who I simply don't know where their consistent international future sits, other than those two, I'm confident in saying that this group will play for Tonga for the next few years at least.
As for Aotearoa, 27 players were named and I've made a little depth chart from that wider squad...
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jahrome Hughes.
Ken Maumalo, Jordan Rapana, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Jamayne Isaako.
Esan Marsters, Joseph Manu, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Shaun Johnson, Kodi Nikorima, Benji Marshall, Kieran Foran.
Issac Luke, Brandon Smith, Kodi Nikorima.
Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Leeson Ah Mau, James Fisher-Harris, Isaac Liu, Joseph Tapine, Agnatius Paasi, Kenny Bromwich, Zane Tetevano, Isaiah Papali'i.
Briton Nikora, Joseph Tapine, Kenny Bromwich, James Fisher-Harris, Isaiah Papali'i, Isaac Liu.
All the headlines were about the players coming into the squad, returns of Benji Marshall and Kieran Foran for example. Creeping under the radar was coach Michael Maguire leaving a fair list of players out of this squad and this list of omissions or notable absentees is: Tohu Harris (known injury), Adam Blair, Gerard Beale, Kevin Proctor and Corey Harawira-Naera.
From that 27-man squad, here is my predicted Kiwis top-17...
Fullback: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Wings: Ken Maumalo, Jordan Rapana.
Centres: Esan Marsters, Joseph Manu.
Halves: Shaun Johnson, Kodi Nikorima.
Middles: Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, James Fisher-Harris.
Edges: Briton Nikora, Joseph Tapine.
Hooker: Issac Luke.
Bench: Brandon Smith, Leeson Ah Mau, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Isaac Liu.
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Peace and love 27.