Tonight, State of Origin's game two will go down in Perth and the inter-state angst fueled by Aussies being Aussies will look nothing like Aotearoa vs Tonga. While the comparison is easy to make between these two fixtures, it's a lazy comparison given what we saw with Aotearoa and Tonga, as two nations played a rough and rugged game of footy with little to no bad blood.
Yup, that was my major insight from Aotearoa's 34-14 win over Tonga. Many folks have tried to build this rivalry up into something that isn't overly natural for kiwis or Tongans and while mainstream media try to portray Tonga as traitors or Aotearoa being out for revenge, none of that is natural. Fans of all nationalities who call Aotearoa home, came together at Mt Smart to celebrate rugby league in our little corner of the world and we do it our way; good vibes only.
As much as the narrative of Tonga lacking two legit play-making halves could be used as a key factor of their loss, Aotearoa's forwards simply out-played their celebrated opposition. Tuimoala Lolohea and John Asiata could have definitely rolled through more clinical sets on Aotearoa's try-line and a fairly basic game plan from Tonga allowed the Kiwis to focus their energies on stopping runners, however Lolohea and Asiata kicked accurately, forced 4 drop outs and shared the footy around.
Asiata was kinda brilliant with his kicking game, considering he's essentially a middle forward and the last resort option for Tonga in good ball, was to kick for David Fusitu'a or Daniel Tupou. Those kicks were on the money and led to points. On the other hand, Benji Marshall and Shaun Johnson both gave up 7-tackle sets in the first half and that's exactly what you don't want to do against Tonga. This forced Aotearoa to defend their try-line, turning them around from being down Tonga's end to trying to stop a rampaging Tonga with an extra tackle up their sleeves.
Unfortunately for Tonga, their greatest strength didn't really show up.
It's all fine and dandy to have a forward pack like Tonga's, however a lack of balance in that pack resulted in slow and flimsy ruck defence. Brandon Smith was exceptional for Aotearoa in taking advantage of Tonga's lack of agility in the middle and far more concerning than the halves for Tonga, is that their forward pack is all-in on their work with the footy. Not that Tonga's work with the footy, via 57 percent possession, was all that brutal.
Tonga averaged 8.18m/run. Aotearoa averaged 10.02m/run. That tells you all you need to know about this contest as Tonga couldn't match the Kiwis up the guts and this is more evident in Jason Taumalolo averaging just 7m/run. Taumalolo is Mr 11m/run, 10m at least and then take someone like Tevita Pangai Junior who had 7.87m/run.
This was a horrible night for Pangai Junior, who was exposed by Aotearoa's swift edges. For all the pride and passion we have seen from Tonga and know they carry with them in their performances, nothing about Pangai Junior's performance reflected that. Much of this is due to a change in position for Pangai Junior, who plays through the middle for Brisbane Broncos and was on the edge for this game, alongside Asiata who plays the bulk of his footy through the middle for North Queensland Cowboys.
These two defensive roles are super different, obviously rooted in having more space to defend out on the edges, hence mobility and speed is more important. Aotearoa went with two specialist edge forwards in Kenny Bromwich and Briton Nikora, who played on the same sides as they do in the NRL and it showed.
Pangai Junior was either gassed on the outside by Johnson, or - even crazier - unable to contain Johnson and wee Jahrome Hughes.
Yes, Hughes out-muscled Pangai Junior. Then we have Asiata making the wrong decision in pushing up too far, outside Joseph Manu and not respecting Manu's (nek level) running ability:
My preview zoned in on whether Aotearoa could do enough through the middle to then allow them such opportunities on the edges. Aotearoa blasted Tonga away through the middle and this saw them expose Tonga's lack of substance out on the edges, which reflects incredibly well on Jesse Bromwich, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu, Kenny Bromwich, Briton Nikora, Leeson Ah Mau and Nelson Asofa-Solomona (James Fisher-Harris only got 18mins when the game was sussed).
This isn't a superstar forward pack, yet it definitely isn't a pack of battlers. Everyone in that forward pack plays at high level weekly in the NRL and everyone offers something slightly different in terms of body shape, as well as skillset. Other than Nikora and perhaps Kenny Bromwich who hasn't enjoyed consistent edge minutes for Aotearoa, these lads know what has to be done to win international games via steady experience led by Jesse Bromwich and Waerea-Hargreaves.
No starting forward averaged over 10m/run for Aotearoa. Ah Mau and Asofa-Solomona came off the bench to average 12m/run (!!) and 10.41m/run respectively, which epitomises the Kiwis pack as one looks like an average uso, the other's a monster and yet they both had a similar impact.
I'll finish this with Ken Maumalo, who has been on an emphatic development path since the start of 2018. Starting all five games last year under coach Michael Maguire, routinely being one of Aotearoa Warriors best in the NRL and then last night, Maumalo was second to Smith as Aotearoa's best. Maumalo had 12runs/139m and the most post-contact-metres of any Kiwis player with 48, averaging 11.58m/run.
Maumalo is 1st in post-contact-metres and total run metres for the entire NRL. Averaging 9.71m/run in 19 runs per game, along with almost averaging a try a game, means that there is a strong argument for Maumalo as the best winger in the world right now. His performance vs Tonga reflected that and we been able to see his steady progression from not knowing if he'll hold down an NRL wing spot, to being world-class in the space of 12 months.
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Peace and love 27.