In recent editions of the Rugby League World Cup, nations tend to be fielding the strongest side they have. When it comes to Tonga in 2017, they’ve certainly delivered that with an exclamation mark.
Mate Ma’a Tonga coach Kristian Woolf appears to have united the team and country, with the national side set to launch an assault on the “Big Three” of the sport with the intent of claiming the trophy.
RLIF World Ranking: 11
Best Result: Two group wins (2013)
2013 Finish: Eliminated in Pool stage
2017 RLWC Odds: $15
Tonga’s first campaign at a Rugby League World Cup was in 1995. The team left the UK having made the nation proud with incredible performances on debut that included a one-point loss to New Zealand, a game still talked about today, and a 28-all draw with Papua New Guinea.
They went on to have disappointing campaigns in 2000 and 2008 before winning two of three matches in 2013. On that occasion, they once again failed to progress further than the preliminary rounds.
Led by Sika Manu, Tonga qualified for this year’s Rugby League World Cup with a win over the Cook Islands in 2015. Over the past two years, they’ve endured a couple of losses to Samoa, but gained a victory against Fiji in this year’s Pacific Test. In the last two World Cups, Tonga had gone into the tournament as favourites from their pool to progress to the knockout stage.
Once again we find the same situation occurring in 2017, with a lot of hype already being generated around Tonga, except this time they are fielding a team that should genuinely compete against the heavyweights of the game.
The Tongan side have been in the media spotlight largely due to the decisions of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita to represent the Mate Ma’a at this World Cup instead of New Zealand and Australia. This was an unprecedented move which appeared to have a domino effect on the rest of the squad chosen, giving Kristian Woolf a pretty easy job at the selection table. However, the coach has certainly played a major role in pulling together and uniting this team.
Team line up (likely)
1. William Hopoate
2. Daniel Tupou
3. Michael Jennings
4. Konrad Hurrell
5. Manu Vatuvei
6. Tuimoala Lolohea
7. Ata Hingano
8. Andrew Fifita
9. Siliva Havili
10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho
11. Manu Mau
12. Sika Manu (c)
13. Jason Taumalolo
14. Sione Katoa
15. Sam Moa
16. Peni Terepo
17. Ben Murdoch-Masila
Squad Members: Mahe Fonua, David Fusitua, Solomone Kata, Samisoni Langi, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pengai Jr, Ukuma Taia, Peni Terepo,
Sika Manu is the skipper of the side once again and leads a dynamic forward pack that could arguably be the best in the tournament. This will certainly ensure that intensity levels will be high in matches involving Tonga.
The backline will provide just as much impact with strong runners of the ball in a back five that will be made up of Hopoate, Vatuvei, Hurrell, Jennings, Fusitua, Kata and Tupou. They will all be competing for starting spots.
The weakness in the side definitely sits in the key spine positions, with a young, inexperienced halves pairing and no proven dummy half to rely upon. It is still on paper a formidable line-up which shows why the championship odds for Tonga were slashed from triple figures down to $15 once the squad was announced.
There are a few that you could pick from within this line-up. However, it’s hard to go past the two brothers of destruction that generated the headlines when the squads were being announced. They’ve now got to back up that hype and it’s hard to argue that they won’t.
Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita are the two most destructive forwards in the game. If the pair are on the field and taking hit-ups simultaneously, opposition teams will have a handful. If the halves and backline can make the most of the damage these two men cause in the middle, Tonga will be a force to be reckoned with.
Fixtures and opponents
Vs Scotland @ Barlow Park, Cairns Kick Off – Sun 29th Oct 5:15pm AEDT
Vs Samoa @ Waikato Stadium, Hamilton Kick Off – Sat fourth Nov 5:30pm AEDT
Vs New Zealand @ Waikato Stadium, Hamilton Kick Off – Sat 11th Nov 3pm AEDT
As mentioned above, Tonga have gone into the last two World Cups with a lot of hype and on both occasions failed to meet those expectations from the very first match. They kick off their 2017 campaign against the very same nation they opened against in 2013 – Scotland. On that occasion, Scotland defeated Tonga 26-24 in a major upset that ultimately led to Tonga missing out on the finals even though it was their only loss.
It’s basically déjà vu in this World Cup and the Tongans have a chance at delivering on the hype and setting the tone for the rest of their campaign. They need to start with a bang.
RLWC 2017 prospects
Tonga have been drawn into this tournament’s pool of death (Pool B) with their companions being the world’s second, fourth and fifth-ranked sides. The Mate Ma’a sit outside the top ten on RLIF rankings, but I give them every chance of topping Pool B at the end of the group stage.
Tonga will certainly advance to the knockout stage for the first time and a historic semi-final appearance for the tiny Pacific nation is not beyond reach with the squad they’ve assembled. Tonga is the dark horse that could potentially mount a challenge all the way to glory.