This Saturday evening the Kangaroos will clash with the Kiwis in a rugby league Test match. In seasons past I’ve really looked forward to these clashes as they were heated and intense affairs.
However, that hasn’t been the case for years.
Now there is only one show in international rugby league that I really want to see: Mate Ma’a Tonga.
Sure Australia vs New Zealand once was the pinnacle of the sport. I looked forward to the games with great excitement.
My first real attention was captured when Kevin Tamati and Greg Dowling went toe to toe at Lang Park back in 1985. The intensity of that incident highlighted the passion that existed between the sides and how much they wanted to beat each other.
Tamati’s only regret from the incident is not the fight itself, but that it is the thing that most people remember from what was an excellent three Test series.
And he’s right: it’s all I remember.
However, that passion is now nowhere to be seen. International rugby league was subjugated years ago to the behemoth that is State of Origin: its crowds, its ratings, its money. The demise of the Ashes series against Great Britain severely damaged international rugby league too.
For years now international rugby league has been a two-horse race between New Zealand and Australia. The Kangaroos have won every World Cup since 1975, with the exception of the Kiwis’ triumph in 2008. Australia have won three of the four Tri Nations series, with the Kiwis lone win coming in 2005. Australia and New Zealand have split the Four Nations titles three-two respectively since the tournament started in 2009.
Whatever gloss there was on international rugby league had certainly come off over the last two decades. The players know it too. It is far from uncommon for a player to have a Kangaroos jersey but not have played in State of Origin. Once upon a time that was unthinkable.
The idea that the likes of Semi Radradra or James Tamou could play for the Kangaroos was also a bizarre thought. However, now it is arguable that some elite players might view rugby league internationals as non-essential gigs.
Just look at this weekend’s teams that will play at Mount Smart. For a starter the Kangaroos side looks almost totally different from anything we’ve seen in recent years. There will be just 106 caps in the side. Billy Slater and Cam Smith have 86 between them.
Meanwhile, the Kiwis have named 23 year old Dallin Watene-Zelezniak as their captain although it’s only his eighth game for New Zealand and third in the fullback position. While both sides have plenty of really good players there are a couple of players many of us are still in shock aren’t in those teams: Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo.
Those two chose – at great personal expense – to play for the red of Mate Ma’a Tonga. A speck of a Pacific Island nation that has a population of just over 100,000.
The Tongan people may have spread throughout Australia and New Zealand but they are passionate about their heritage and they are passionate about rugby league. And it is that passion that may well reignite international the game.
Once upon a time a player from the Pacific Islands would probably try to advance their careers through allegiance to either New Zealand or Australia. That’s no longer the case for those of Tongan heritage who are proudly flocking to the red jersey.
When Jason Taumololo and Andrew Fifita – the very top players in the world in their respective positions – decided to play for Tonga and not New Zealand and Australia respectively (the sides both had previously represented) they gave the 2017 Rugby League World Cup the shot in the arm it desperately needed.
I was extremely excited about how Tonga might perform. And I wasn’t disappointed. They lost only one game of the five they played – the semi final to England in which they went down by two points. Over the tournament they scored an average of 30 points a game, while Australia and the Kiwis (who both flogged easy-beat sides) averaged 34. The Tongan matches were all exciting and hotly contested.
And their crowd was totally and utterly berserk. A sea of fanatical red went everywhere with them and it was superb.
The red wave of Tonga seems to be growing exponentially. Of the 25 Test matches that Tonga has played – the first being in 1995 – they have won 12 of them. Six of those wins have come in their last seven games. Prior to 2017 Mate Ma’a Tonga had a 33 per cent win rate. It is now 50 per cent. It is 85 per cent since last May.
Make no mistake, the change has been the eligible players rallying to their cause. When Tonga were defeated 32-18 by Papua New Guinea in 2014, Sika Manu was the only regular NRL first grade player in the team.
The squad to take on the Kangaroos at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday 20 October has 19 regular NRL first grade players in it. Six of them have won premierships.
So when the Kangaroos run out onto Mount Smart Stadium next Saturday to face Mate Ma’a Tonga for the first time you can be assured that it will be a screaming full house that will be red from wall to wall.
Further, the Australians will be up against a side who will be absolutely focused and determined – especially Andrew Fifita who will particularly have a point to prove. Australia will have eight players with five or fewer internationals under their belt. That includes their fullback, both centres, hooker and five eighth.
And then there is Felise Kaufusi who played for Mate Ma’a Tonga until just last year. He is bound to get a very hot reception indeed.
While I don’t want to put too much pressure on this game (although I clearly am), the match between the Kangaroos and Mate Ma’a Tonga has the potential to reignite international rugby league in the same way that the first State of Origin transformed the game in Australia.
And I for one hope that it does.