New Zealand vs Tonga match preview: Pool B supremacy at stake

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    With the quarter-finals in our sights, it’s easy to forget that we still have another week of pool games on our hands. Regardless, the finals make-up is becoming clearer.

    From Group A, barring some monumental upsets, Australia, England and Lebanon will make it through in that order.

    From Group C, Papua New Guinea only have to beat the USA to ensure their qualification for the quarters, while Italy will have to beat Fiji by at least 46 points to qualify on for and against.

    In Group B, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand will go through, but as to who will top the group and earn themselves arguably an easier path is still very much up in the air.

    Samoa have third place locked up, and will more than likely face the Kangaroos. Tonga and New Zealand meanwhile, will do battle on Saturday for the right to play Lebanon. Whoever wins this will fancy their chances. The loser, on the other hand, will likely face a red-hot Fiji – a much trickier proposition than facing the Cedars.

    Form
    New Zealand have been very impressive so far – that’s coming from someone who predicted that if there are to be any major upsets in this tournament, the Kiwis would be on the receiving end.

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    Considering that Scotland and New Zealand drew 18-all just 12 months ago, it’s impressive that this Kiwis side (arguably weaker than last year’s) were able to do what they did to the Scots on Saturday. Obviously the Bravehearts are weaker than they were a year ago, due to the fact that all their NRL players are injured, but it’s still an incredible turnaround.

    The Kiwis were outstanding against Samoa two weeks ago. The Samoan forwards attempted to create a storm, and to an extent they succeeded, but New Zealand weathered that storm and put a score on.

    The Tongans too have impressed, however they have not yet put in an 80-minute performance, letting both Scotland and Samoa back into the game.

    However, expect Tonga to step it up a notch this weekend, as they have enough big-game experience to show up against the Kiwis.

    New Zealand’s strengths
    New Zealand’s biggest strength is the front row. Intimidation is the name of the game, with starting middle men Martin Taupau and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and bench enforcers Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Russell Packer.

    Packer, in particular, offers one of the game’s quickest play-the-balls, rarely failing to land on his front when tackled.

    Skipper and lock Adam Blair also plays like a third front-rower, and offers a lot of mongrel with his take-no-prisoners attitude.

    That said, there are danger men throughout this team. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be a handful from the back, and the likes of Jordan Rapana with his agility, and Brad Takairangi with his power, will be hard to stop.

    Tonga’s strengths
    Like New Zealand, Tonga’s biggest strength is in the middle of the park. That is what makes this match such an exciting prospect.

    The entire Tongan forward pack, including the bench, is absolutely oozing with class, with every player in the starting pack having played for either Australia or New Zealand at some point.

    There is plenty of talent and big-game experience in the backs too. Michael Jennings, Will Hopoate and Daniel Tupou are all Origin players and NRL premiership winners.

    New Zealand’s weaknesses
    I would have retained Jason Nightingale from the Scotland game at the expense of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. There could not be two more different wingers.

    Nightingale is the epitome of professionalism. Errors in his game are few and far between and while his speed has diminished, every other aspect of his game is as good as it’s ever been. He never drops bombs, scores plenty of tries, and rarely makes errors in defence. The ultimate professional.

    Watene-Zelezniak, in stark contrast, has plenty of errors in his game, as was evident against Samoa and during the NRL finals. Nightingale and Peta Hiku would have been better options.

    With that in mind, Tonga need to send plenty of traffic toward DWZ and bomb the hell out of his wing – especially from 30 metres out.

    The other issue is Waerea-Hargreaves. He has been a great player for the Roosters for many years, but has never stepped up for the Kiwis – not against quality opposition anyway. Having said that, there is no one in the Kiwi squad I would replace him with, although he’s fortunate Jesse Bromwich and Jason Taumalolo are unavailable. If they were, I sincerely doubt he would be in the team at all.

    Jared Waerea-Hargreaves

    NAPARAZZI / Flickr

    Tonga’s weaknesses
    Konrad Hurrell is one of the most destructive centres in the game, but he’s error-prone in defence and attack.

    After being dropped last week following a poor showing against Scotland, Hurrell finds his way back in the team due to an injury to Solomone Kata.

    Fortunately for Tonga, his effort against the Scots didn’t really cost his team, but making the same errors against the Kiwis could. New Zealand would do well to target Hurrel’s side of the field relentlessly.

    I’m also sceptical about halves Ata Hingano and Tui Lolohea’s ability to be composed and make the right decisions during the clutch moments. They’ve been mighty impressive so far, but New Zealand won’t give them the opportunities that Samoa and Scotland did.

    The verdict
    A Tongan win will come from a good old-fashioned forward ambush. Big charges up the middle, quick play-the-balls, good decisions and pristine execution from the halves will exert plenty of pressure on the Kiwis.

    For New Zealand to win, they just need to match it up front. If the Kiwis can get Tonga into an arm wrestle, they should win off the back of the class they possess in the halves.

    I can see this match being close for 60 minutes before New Zealand run away with it. That said, if the Kiwis take their foot off the gas at any point, Tonga will make them pay.

    New Zealand by 14.