Tonga v Australia – Rugby League Test Preview

Rugby League Test
Tonga v Australia
Saturday 20 October 2018
Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland

If last week was just the appetiser, then this week’s main course could be something special. The lead up to the Kangaroos’ battle with New Zealand was a little overshadowed by the prospect of the Aussies’ first meeting with the Tongans, coming this Saturday night at Mt Smart Stadium, a mouth-watering clash if ever there was one. If the Kiwis were just the undercard, then nobody told them, as they produced a spirited display to out muscle, out enthuse and ultimately out play the fancied Australians. The Kangaroos are reeling, and the islanders must sense an opportunity to land a killer blow on the powerhouse team. The representative retirements of the big four have left a sizeable hole in this Australian outfit, and their replacements need to find their feet quickly or the team will be facing consecutive losses for the first time in a calendar year since 1978.

Last week did not go at all to script for Mal Meninga’s team. The early loss of Luke Keary was a huge blow, as Ben Hunt was ill prepared to enter the game in that role, and Daly Cherry-Evans struggled to control the game without his left side partner. Any talk that the injury cost Australia the game, though, is well wide of the mark, and neglects to give the Kiwis the credit they deserve. As previewed before the game, the middle third was going to be key for the New Zealanders, and they went about dominating the Aussies through the pack for the most of the 80 minutes. David Klemmer was the only Australian forward to run for more than 100 metres, and more often than not Australia were finishing their sets either in their own half or just over halfway. The Kiwis, on the other hand, marched up field with relative ease, usually off the back of a strong kick return from outstanding skipper and fullback Dallin Watene-Zalezniak. Martin Tapau, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Jesse Bromwich were outstanding, and gave the Tongans the blueprint on how to ruffle these Australians’ feathers. The New Zealanders also unearthed some future stars at international level, with Brandon Smith outpointing Damien Cook, and Joseph Manu doing the same to his clubmate Latrell Mitchell. This feels like a Kiwi team building for the future, and the future looks bright.

The Australians, for all of the dominance the Kiwis held, still managed to come within a whisker of stealing the match, so there is something to build on. Early on, it looked like the left side combination of Keary, Boyd Cordner, Mitchell and Valentine Holmes might win this one on their own, as they ran through the Kiwis at will and scored after only a handful of minutes. Cherry-Evans produced a couple of key plays that led to points, and it must have been a torrid night for a halfback playing behind a well beaten pack. Cook and Mitchell will be better for their first run in green and gold, and Klemmer was outstanding up front. He is now the leader of this pack, and must continue to stamp his authority on games as he did last weekend. The Australians need to maximise these positives heading into this weekend, and the Tongans will know the class they are up against.

Meninga has named an unchanged 17 for the Tonga clash, including Keary who has recovered from the concussion suffered last week. Reagan Campbell-Gillard can again consider himself unlucky, as Aaron Woods was one of a number of forwards who didn’t aim up last week. It is arguable if Ben Hunt provides the same spark off the bench as David Peachey, but the Dragons’ halfback will again don the number 14 jersey, and will probably give Cook another spell early in the second half. Skipper Boyd Cordner will know how much improvement is required of his forward pack, so expect the likes of Josh McGuire and Jordan McLean to be much more active in the middle. If there is little to no improvement from the big men from last week, the Kangaroos will be in trouble.

The Tongans have named a team with a number of key dangermen the Aussies will be wary of. The forward pack is full of big, mobile, ball playing forwards who will smell blood after watching last week’s match. Led by Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo, this is a pack that will throw fast legs and quick hands at the Kangaroos all night. Tui Lolohea will call most of the shots from five-eighth, and he will be looking to feed the likes of Michael Jennings and Solomone Kata early ball often. There are some real finishers out wide, so any half chances will likely be converted by Daniel Tupou and the athletic David Fusitu’a. Will Hopoate is playing the best football of his career, and he will be another backline leader from fullback. In front of a sell out crowd that will be staunchly behind the Tongans, this team will come to play.

The big question to be answered on Saturday night is which Australian team will turn up. If the Roos roll out the same attitude as last week, when they were clearly not as aggressive or emotional as the Kiwis, the Tongans will eat them alive. The Australian forwards must find a way to control the middle third, meaning quick line speed on Fifita and Taumalolo, and cutting the likes Tevita Pangai Jnr down early. There is so much class in the Aussie backline that they won’t need many chances, but they won’t get many if Klemmer, McGuire and McLean are out muscled.

The battle in the halves is a lottery, with the Cherry-Evans and Keary combination still an unknown. Their plan must be to hit Mitchell and Trjobevic early with space in front of them, as they proved last week how damaging they can be. James Tedesco was dangerous as well, and should work his way into the game behind his forwards in the middle before he starts swooping out wide. Damien Cook must look to run more often then he did last week, but again, his effectiveness will depend on the work of his forwards.
The try scoring fire-power across both backlines is astounding, so it won’t surprise to see some cracking finishes in the corners. This might be a match of half chances, given how desperate the defence should be. If that’s the case, expect some tough calls for the video referees as these athletic wingers test their limits.

Tonga will undoubtedly rely on emotion and intensity in the early exchanges, and it will be up to the Australians to weather that storm. The Kangaroos are raging favourites at $1.26, with Tonga paying a juicy $3.85 in a very winnable match. The 11.5 points start for the Tongans looks like enough for them to defend, so Tonga with the +11.5 start at $1.93 is out best bet of the week.

Head to Head

Tonga $3.85
Australia $1.26

-11.5 1.87
+11.5 1.93

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Enjoy your footy!