Once Tonga's initial wider squad had been narrowed down to a group of 17 for their game vs Aotearoa Kiwis, it became clear that regardless of what happened at Mt Smart on Saturday night, Tonga would be all good. After that note, Andrew Fifita was withdrawn due to an NRL suspension and suddenly Tonga's depth had evaporated to go with limited halves depth exposed.
Tonga were then out-classed in losing to Aotearoa, although their biggest weakness on paper didn't translate to on field performance. Tuimoala Lolohea and John Asiata obviously weren't quite as clinical as the Kiwis play-makers and yet they did a solid job given the circumstances. Tonga were unable to make the most of all their possession down Aotearoa's end, but it was the Tongan halves who pulled the strings to win repeat sets and put their team in that position.
I make a key point of this because Lolohea and Asiata have become easy targets. They weren't responsible for Tonga's lack of ruck control, nor how Tonga won quick play-the-balls. Insert Ata Hingano into Asiata's role and I'm not sure that Hingano does a whole lot differently other than a few more quick-footed runs. Plain and simple; Tonga were dominated in the middle to the extent that the scoreboard reflected it.
Tonga's leaders Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Jason Taumalolo were visibly disappointed after the game. Taukeiaho tried his darnest with the footy, taking 21 runs for 186m only to miss 6 tackles and for context (28 made), Taukeiaho only averages 1.3 missed tackles per game in the NRL. Taumalolo averages 26.7 tackles and 1 missed tackle per game in the NRL and he stepped up to make 31 tackles missing just 3, as I highlighted in my first debrief Taumalolo averaged just 7m per run vs Aotearoa.
In the leaders, we have it all summed up as Taukeiaho was immense with the footy but was a culprit in the ruck defence and Taumalolo was solid defensively but well below par with the footy. Neither was as good as they are every week in the NRL and as leaders, they probably feel like they are well aware of that.
Tonga's depth was tested for this game with a bunch of notable absentees. For a group like Tonga, depth has to be built at this level and this is the process that is being worked through; Asiata, Manase Fainu and Sitili Tupouniua made their Tonga debuts to give them three more players in the mix moving forward.
As lovely as Kotoni Staggs' story is, he doesn't feel like a long-term Tongan international. Michael Jennings was unavailable for this Test and he'd slot in as a starting centre, Robert Jennings is another capable centre/wing option and there's always going to be Konrad Hurrell sniffing around looking for game time. That is to say that we may not see the Staggs/Solomone Kata centre combo rolled out later this year.
The absence of Hingano had a few ripples creeping their impact through Tonga's squad and one slept on positive impact from that is that it got Asiata in a Tongan jersey. Should Hingano return, then Asiata can play as a middle forward where he's skills are a huge bonus and he plays a link-man to push the halves out wider. Had Hingano and Lolohea been playing, Asiata may have still been playing with Samoa and the possibility of Tonga having one of the best ball-playing forwards wouldn't exist.
Fifita left a hole, both in terms of his ability as a baller and his presence as the spiritual leader. There was also however the absence of young Gold Coast Titans forward Moeaki Fotuaika who has swiftly emerged as one of, if not the best middle forward prospect in the NRL. Fotuaika had 21 runs/207m for 9.85m per run vs Addin Fonua-Blake and Martin Taupau (Sea Eagles), then he came against Taumalolo (Cowboys) and had 20 runs/217m for 10.85m per run and then against a delightful Brisbane Broncos forward pack, Foutaika had 17 runs/175m for 10.29m per run.
That's Fotuaika and I want to make that extremely clear that Fotuaika is a gun, who should be in any top-17 for Tonga. Tonga don't lack up and coming forwards, that group is led by Ofahiki Ogden (Bulldogs) and Taniela Paseka (Sea Eagles), while Fotuaika is the best of that emerging group.
Where Tonga find halves depth is the major question and the options presented from this loss to Aoteaoa help their situation. If Tonga need to play Asiata in the halves again, everyone will be better for the experience of his debut outing and an alternative option is for Manase Fainu to play halves as he started out as a half before moving to hooker for Manly Sea Eagles Under 20's.
Lolohea and Hingano is still the best combo. International footy though, is about how a team can deal with numerous players of their top group are unavailable. Kiwis coach Michael Maguire has a luxury of depth to work with, however Maguire was able to give different players an opportunity last year and build Aotearoa's depth to this point. Tonga and coach Kristian Woolf are now tasked with adding building blocks to what they have, while also noting down some key areas of improvement.
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