RLWC – Why Tonga are deserved dark horses
Rugby League expert Kaine Greenwood takes a look at Rugby League World Cup dark horses Tonga ahead of the tournament’s big kick-off.
It feels like an age since Melbourne and Leeds lifted the two domestic crowns of the rugby league calendar but the gap left is about to be filled by just over a month of international action – and this instalment of World Cup rugby league appears to be dangling a rather tasty carrot.
Looking outside the usual trio of Australia, New Zealand and England in this year’s competition, the squad that Tonga announced pre-tournament raised a few eyebrows and undoubtedly increased excitement.
The usual suspects are certain to have taken notice of names like Andrew Fifita, Michael Jennings, Konrad Hurrell and 2016 Dally M medallist Jason Taumalolo putting their hand up to pull the Mate Ma’a red jersey over their shoulders.
Is it desperation for us to think something different to the norm could be served up by a side that only qualified in a play-off against the Cook Islands though? Actually, probably not.
Granted, there hasn’t been a victory over the ‘big three’ since 1995 and Tonga’s last experience of a major match-up ended in their heaviest-ever defeat, 74-0 v New Zealand, nearly 20 years ago in 1999 but this isn’t just a couple of names drafted in to bulk up a squad.
Tonga mean business
The South Pacific Islanders look to be a group, a band of brothers if you like, putting aside the riches of pulling on other jerseys (as is all too common in rugby league) in favour of representing their heritage.
Mate Ma’a Tonga translates as “I would die for Tonga” and it is that ‘bond’ added to their quality that makes the World Cup’s smallest country credible as an ‘outsider’. The passion of this island nation should not be underestimated.
Looking at the whole squad Kristian Woolf has at his disposal, only Samisoni Langi is not with a top-flight side on either side of the world and that is only because of Leigh Centurions relegation in the Million Pound Game.
With three teams qualifying for the quarter-finals from both Group A and B the Tongans are almost guaranteed to make the quarter-finals even if they were to slip to rivals Samoa for a third successive game.
With household names like Taumalolo heading the pack and captain Will Hopoate controlling things from the back with Daniel Tupou, Manu Vatuvei, Solomone Kata and wrecking ball Hurrell in support among others, even that match-up appears to be well within their capabilities and they should start comfortable favourites for the 4th November clash.
Concerns for the Mate Ma’a
The main concern that you would have with Polynesian progress not eventuating comes from the fact the halves pairing of Tuimoala Lolohea and Ata Hingano is almost younger combined than Aussie leader Cameron Smith at just 22 and 20 respectively, meaning they are untested at any level like this.
That said, as natural young talents and with perhaps the tournaments best pack able to put them in positions of danger, a potential final eight meeting with Fiji, if they were to secure second spot, isn’t really a step beyond them.
And they will then have the incentive of setting up a semi-final with England or Australia should things run smoothly elsewhere. That will be their aim and possibly where the tournament really tests. Their group clash with New Zealand will also mean they will have experienced the standard required before this stage and a Samoa v Tonga affair is never taken lightly.
What’s available elsewhere?
Outside of support for Wayne Bennett’s group the 24-man squad representing downtown Nukuʻalofa and beyond may peak public interest.
The Bravehearts of Scotland are really going to have to live up to their name as the remaining side in Group B with New Zealand, Samoa and the Tongans. They will have an old head in Danny Brough to guide them but it will be an ask to see them get off the zero they start with let alone progress beyond three games.
With Ireland and Wales pitted together in Group C it means that one of the two will get on the board in the final group game on 12th November but a victory elsewhere prior will be needed against Italy, Fiji or Papua New Guinea to see either compete for the one spot that gets qualification.
The Welsh will look to Craig Kopczak to have a strong tournament with young players Rhodri Lloyd, Regan Grace and Morgan Knowles meaning Iestyn Harris’ side have the ability to entertain given chance.
Ireland, meanwhile, have experienced Super League names in Kyle Amor, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Micky McIlorum, Liam Finn and the ever-improving Brad Singleton added to talents such as Joes Keyes and Philbin. I’d make them first-choice to go best-of-the-rest from a ‘home nations’ point-of-view.
If we sort of accept Australia are well ahead here we can enjoy much of what the others have to offer and 2017 may see Tonga offer more than ever before.
A tournament is rarely about just one team and there are always sub-plots. New Zealand v Tonga, 11th November – mark it down now! The Taumalolo family have.