The Kiwis aren't even dark horses. They're closer to actual favourites.
New Zealand have started the Pacific Tests in style with a dominant 26-6 victory over Tonga on the return of rugby league to Auckland.
The story of the game was perhaps the return itself, both of international men’s rugby league and of top level rugby league to New Zealand, but don’t tell the Kiwis that: this was a perfect performance in which they put a dangerous Tonga side to the sword.
New Zealand won 26-6, but the manner of the victory, in which they quietened a partisan Tonga crowd early and then turned the screw, was exceptional.
Joey Manu stole the show, running for nearly 400m, thought to have surpassed 366m from Clint Gutherson against the Dragons in 2022 for a world record. NRL stats had Manu at 398m, with Fox giving a lower but still astounding 302.
Whatever it was, it was exceptional from the Roosters man, who also broke six tackles and touched the ball more than anyone on the field, including his halfbacks.
He did so on the back of a dominant showing from the forwards, who sent out a message to the rest of the World Cup.
James Fisher-Harris, Joseph Tapine and Moses Leota were worth over 100m – Fisher-Harris himself topped 152m – leading to a two-thirds territory advantage.
The suspicion has been that Tonga would have the edge in the forwards but the Kiwis would have a better spine, but early on, the New Zealand pack was able to roll forwards and deliver field position.
When the try came, it was simple, with Hughes able to dart at the line and spin in contact to get the ball down.
The second was more spectacular, but again made by strong forward play. Jesse Bromwich broke the line and slipped an excellent offload to Brown, who put Jordan Rapana under the posts with a pass that looked more than a little forward, but was allowed to stand.
When Tonga finally gained some field position, they were able to take advantage. Sione Katoa – facing his Sharks teammate Ronaldo Mulitalo – was the man with the finish, but the try owed more than a little to the work of Junior Amone further in to create the opportunity.
The defensive aspect continued to let Tonga down. They allowed James Fisher-Harris to run straight through their central defence and were only repeived when Joey Manu chose to go himself when he might have passed.
The momentum was one way. Rapana added a penalty goal before Christian Tuipulotu was binned for a professional foul.
He might have harsh words afterwards with his Manly teammate Tolutau Koula, who dropped the ball in the line and set Rapana free. Kotoni Staggs made the trysaving tackle with Tuipulotu laying on too long.
The Kiwis immediately took advantage of the extra man. Brown was the architect, floating a long pass to Mulitalo, who squared the ledger with Katoa via an acrobatic dive at the corner.
The half time stats were damning: Tonga had completed high and ran hard, but had hardly seen the football or the New Zealand end.
The second half in the same vein. Tonga were defending better, but getting nowhere with ball in hand. Rapana might have had another, but slid into touch, while Manu split the line and kicked, but Amone shovelled behind.
Eventually the weight of pressure told, and again it was straight down the middle. Fisher-Harris went straight up the middle and found Isaiah Papali’I, who was able to reach out an arm and plonk the ball on the line.