Look past the surface-level niggle of Aotearoa vs Tonga and you'll find an intriguing contest rooted in two contrasting ways of playing footy. Tonga have the forward pack and such is the quality of their forward pack that they have a genuine chance of controlling the game via that forward pack. Aotearoa on the other hand, have two supremely experienced international halves who along with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, have rather nifty footwork.
The Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall halves combination will be tasked with using their class to dictate the flow of this game. As Tonga rack up international fixtures, keys to defeating them will revolve around shifting the footy and a silky kicking game; force repeat efforts and keep Tonga coming out of their own end of the field. Along the same lines, don't expect the Kiwis to kick for touch as they will be eager to keep the footy in play as much as possible and limit the stoppages.
Aotearoa have the tools to target Tonga's edge defence. Johnson and Marshall will slide either side of the ruck, alternating between first and second receiver, which will see one of the halves and Tuivasa-Sheck getting the footy out on the edges. The Kiwis will have a few plays to isolate the Tongan halves and centres, which will be dictate by Johnson and Marshall; both of whom can skip to the outside of a defender and create an overlap without much difficulty.
I suspect those plans will focus on Solomone Kata and Tuimoala Lolohea. If they are defending on the same edge, fabulous, otherwise they will offer a target on either edge for the Kiwis to isolate. Consider that two of the best running halves (ever) are joined by the exceptional footwork of Tuivasa-Sheck, as well as Esan Marsters and Joseph Manu who have all sorts of shimmies and shakes themselves.
For the Kiwis forward pack, they simple need to do their job in laying a platform and maintaining parity with the Tongan forward pack. Aotearoa don't have the sexy, headline names in their forward pack and that plays into the contrasting strengths as the Kiwis forward pack is grizzly, more work-man-like. Of course, they are all handy forwards with unique skills, however their under-rated nature comes in the vibe of having eight forwards who will do their job.
From that, if the Kiwis can generate a tempo with the footy, then they can amplify this with Brandon Smith or Jahrome Hughes sparking up around the ruck. Along with that, there is no shortage of footwork in the Kiwis forward pack and they'll be cutting back behind the ruck after a quickie.
With John Asiata playing in the halves alongside Lolohea, there is a fair amount of uncertainty around Tonga's halves. Lolohea's first season with Leeds Rhinos has coincided with Leeds sitting 10th (of 12) in the Super League and no one knows what Lolohea will show up on Saturday evening. Especially with Lolohea playing with Asiata, who has shown he can do a job at NRL level as a half but will face a vastly different challenge at the international level.
For North Queensland Cowboys, Asiata averages 2.1 kicks per game. Michael Morgan on the other hand averages 12.9 and young half Jake Clifford averages 6.1 kicks. This isn't a perfect example as Asiata hasn't played every game in the halves, but the point is that Asiata is very much a job-doing half and not someone who will take on half the responsibilities with Lolohea.
If Lolohea was playing at a high level every week, this would be all good as Lolohea would take on the Michael Morgan type of role. The Kiwis will be eager to put the halves under immense pressure; load up on Lolohea and if Asiata wants to step up, then his lack of mobility for a half could be exposed.
Of course, if Tonga are steaming their way up the field, the halves will have all sorts of time and space to do their work. Anything is possible if a set of six has multiple quick play-the-balls and having Jason Taumalolo, followed by Sio Siua Taukeiaho, followed by Addin Fonua-Blake, followed by Tevita Pangai Junior etc, is bound to generate some level of tempo.
Taukieaho and Tauamalolo especially, share a similar style of running the footy in which their speed and footwork allows them to work into the space behind the ruck. It takes legit speed and footwork to even get into that zone, then they are big and powerful enough to rack up the post-contact-metres as defenders are chasing, instead of hitting with shoulders. This will signal the alarm for Aotearoa and such is the destruction from these runs, Tonga will then be able to shift the footy with ease to find space elsewhere.
To limit that, Aotearoa can compress their defensive line with less space between the middle defenders and wrestle the fuck out of Tonga. Wrestle and ruck control has never been more important for Aotearoa Kiwis, than this game and if they can get three or four defenders into a tackle, stop the offload, pile on, then peel off, then Tonga won't have the luxury of their greatest asset.
I'm going to keep a close eye on the two fullbacks in Tuivasa-Sheck and Will Hopoate, both of whom could have a major influence on this game. Hopoate is the bloke who ties everything together for Tonga; his positioning at fullback ensures that his team isn't pegged down their own end, he'll be the lead talker organising the defensive line and Hopoate can take a lot of pressure off the halves as an extra pair of play-making hands in attack.
Hopoate isn't celebrated for his work for Tonga and it's the forwards who get all the praise, or flashy backs who finish off that work. Hopoate is the class though, he's the polish and any Tongan victory comes with Hopoate playing well.
Tuivasa-Sheck is in an interesting spot given that we haven't seen him with the Johnson/Marshall combo before. I have talked all year about the lack of Tuivasa-Sheck lurking around the ruck for Aotearoa Warriors (instead sitting out wider) and I'm curious to see how coach Michael Maguire utilises Tuivasa-Sheck. I'd love to see Tuivasa-Sheck stay in the middle, sniffing around for offloads or quick play-the-balls and then target Tonga's middle defenders.
As far as stylistic match ups go, this is rugby league 101. One team has the great forward pack and because footy games are won via dominance through the middle, whenever you have such a forward pack, you're a strong chance of winning. That however comes at the expense of the halves, who are barely at an NRL level as a combination.
The other team has the play-makers, arguably the best halves/fullback trio that Aotearoa has ever seen (wolud be the same with Kieran Foran). When you have such halves who are equally as talented running the footy as they other with subtle touches of quality, along with the footwork of Tuivasa-Sheck, control and game management is made that much easier. This then leads into whether the Kiwis forwards can match Tonga in the middle and/or whether Tonga's halves can do a service-able job in steering Tonga around.
International footy is different to NRL footy. A large portion of international footy is completing sets, going set for set and turning that set for set grind into pressure. Any lack of desire or ability to slip into this mode, will get exposed and this game will be a fascinating experiment of which set of strengths is better suited to footy at this level.
As part of the #KiwiNRL Encyclopedia, I've sussed out a list of all the #KiwiNRL reps from Aotearoa, Tonga and Samoa and their junior clubs in Aotearoa, or their region they are from…
Leeson Ah Mau - Papatoetoe Panthers/Otahuhu Leopards
Nelson Asofa-Solomona - Upper Hutt Tigers
Jesse/Kenny Bromwich - Manurewa Marlins
James Fisher-Harris - Whangarei Marist Brothers
Kieran Foran - Ellerslie Eagles
Jahrome Hughes - Harbour City Eagles
Shaun Johnson - Hibiscus Coast Raiders
Isaac Liu - Otahuhu Leopards
Joseph Manu - Tokoroa High School
Benji Marshall - Whakatane
Esan Marsters - Mt Albert Lions
Ken Maumalo - Papatoetoe Panthers
Briton Nikora - Tauranga
Brandon Smith - Waiheke Rams
Zane Tetevano - Pacific Sharks
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck - East Tamaki Rugby Club/Otahuhu College
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves - Rotorua
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak - Hamilton
David Fusitu'a - Marist Saints
Siliva Havili - Manurewa Marlins
Solomone Kata - Sacred Heart College
Sione Katoa - Randwick Kingfishers/Upper Hutt Tigers
Manu Ma'u - Marist Saints
Sio Siua Taukeiaho - Otara Scorpions
Jason Taumalolo - Papakura Sea Eagles/Otahuhu Leopards
Peni Terepo - Mangere East Hawks
Sitili Tupouniua - Marist Saints
Josh Aloiai - Glenora Bears
Fa'amanu Brown - Hornby Panthers
Michael Chee Kam - Mt Wellington Warriors
Herman Ese'ese - Mangere East Hawks
Raymond Faitala-Mariner - Otahuhu Leopards
James Gavet - Richmond Bulldogs
Jamayne Isaako - Aranui Eagles
Mason Lino - Marist Saints
Chanel Harris-Tavita - Pakuranga Jaguars
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