Wow, what a season we’ve just had, and now we’re about to be treated to some intriguing international league clashes for the second year in a row.
Can Samoa get revenge on Australia for their RLWC loss? Will Tonga make a fist of their very first three-match series against England?
Whatever your thoughts on whether some players are overpaid, many of them will have been working hard for their money over the last 12 months. Some will have played in the RLWC, then got through a hectic NRL season including finals, possibly with some Origin games thrown in, and now finish off with some more international games.
That’s a big year.
Five of the international teams going around over the next month are our Pacific Island neighbours in Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, PNG and the Cook Islands, and if my math is correct, nearly 1050 players have represented these nations since PNG were the very first Island nation to play a representative match back in May 1975, when they were defeated 41 points to 15 by a NZ Māori line-up.
Some of these players have been true stalwarts for their nations, like Kevin Naiqama with 24 appearances for Fiji and Tim Lafai who has represented Samoa on 18 occasions, and most are household names in their country, particularly if they’ve ever worn the Kumuls jersey.
So, the question is, who would make a best of the best side chosen from these five nations? It’s a hard one, with so many talented players to choose from, but here’s my take, and note that only players who have represented their country on six or more occasions were considered.
Fullback – Let’s have a look at the contenders. Kevin Naiqama has played plenty of fullback for Fiji, as has David Mead for PNG and Will Hopoate for Tonga, but the stand-out candidate for the No.1 jersey is Fiji’s Jarryd Hayne, who on his day, was the biggest threat that a defence could imagine. He not only played 10 games for Fiji, but also represented both Australia and NSW with distinction.
Wingers – If there’s one position that the PI teams have covered in abundance it’s the wing. So many great options. Do you go for the freakish try scoring ability of PNG’s Alex Johnston, the speed and power of the Fijian trio in Suliasi Vunivalu, Akuila Uate and Maika Sivo, or the aerial skills of Tonga’s Daniel Tupou?
None would let you down, but I can’t go past the Samoan bulldozer in Brian To’o who has perfected the modern winger’s game to an art form, and another big Samoan speedster in Francis Meli, who was a star both in the NRL and the English Super League.
Centres – There’s far less choice for this position, but the four leading contenders will all have their supporters. There’s PNG wrecking ball Justin Olam, who leaves most opponents with rearranged ribs and PTSD, and Tim Lafai, who has played 18 times for Samoa and who was one of the best performers at the last RLWC, but the two centres are Samoa’s Stephen Crichton, who is arguably the best centre in the game at the moment, alongside Tonga’s Michael Jennings, who played 10 games for the Mate Ma’a, and who had a stellar NRL career and also represented both NSW and Australia on many occasions.
If these two can’t sniff out a try, then no one can.
Five-eighth – It’s in the spine positions, particularly the halves, that PI teams struggle for top-quality players, and the only real contenders here are Tonga’s Felite Mateo, who really is better suited to the back row, Samoan enigma Anthony Milford, who must be a coach’s nightmare, and Samoa’s current captain in Jarome Luai, who just won his third premiership with Penrith. Luai – hands down.
Halfback – There’s not much point talking about the other contenders here as PNG’s Adriam Lam, who starred for Sydney Roosters, Wigan Warriors and QLD in his career, is streets ahead of anyone else.
Middle forwards – Now we’re talking, and the biggest problem here is who to leave out, as there’s a host of very good players to choose from. The unlucky players to miss out will be Tongan pair Addin Fonua-Blake and Andrew Fifita, Samoa’s Junior Paulo, Leeson Ah Mau and Martin Taupau, and Jacob Saifiti from Fiji.
The three starting middle forwards I’ve gone with are Tonga’s wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo at the back of the scrum, the incomparable Petero Civoniceva from Fiji up front, and joined by another Tongan in the non-stop Sia Taukeiaho, who for several years was considered the best front rower in the game.
There’s also a couple of handy big boppers on the bench.
Hooker – Here’s another position where there’s really just one serious contender, and you won’t be surprised to see Fiji’s Apisai Koroisau wearing the 9 jersey. Koroisau has been one of the best dummy halves in the game in recent years.
Second row – Another abundance of talent here and I’ve gone for Tonga’s Felite Mateo and Samoa’s Frank Pritchard. Mateo was big and mobile with the ball-skills of a halfback, and he’ll be well complemented by the even bigger fearsome Frank Pritchard. Other close contenders were PNG’s Neville Costigan, Fijian giant Viliame Kikau and Tongan hard man Richard Fa’aoso.
Bench – The bench comprises a dummy half option, two middle forwards and an outside back.
Siliva Havili, an experienced operator who has played 15 games for Tonga. He’s an accomplished dummy and also has the size and power to play as a middle forward if required.
Brent Kite, a top-class middle forward who apart from playing for Tonga was one of the best in the business during his career.
Josh Papali’I, a feared Samoan big bopper who can dent any defence.
David Mead, a versatile outside back with speed to burn who captained PNG on many occasions.
This is how they line up:
1. Jarryd Hayne (Fiji)
2. Francis Meli (Samoa)
3. Michael Jennings (Tonga)
4. Stephen Crichton (Samoa)
5. Brian To’o (Samoa)
6. Jarome Luai (Samoa)
7. Adrian Lam (PNG)
8. Petero Civoniceva (Fiji) – Captain
9. Apisai Koroisau (Fiji)
10. Sia Taukeiaho (Tonga)
11. Felite Mateo (Tonga)
12. Frank Pritchard (Samoa)
13. Jason Taumalolo (Tonga)
14. Siliva Havili (Tonga)
15. Brent Kite (Tonga)
16. Josh Papali’i (Samoa)
17. David Mead (PNG)
So, there’s the team. Six Samoans, six Tongans, three Fijians and two from PNG. They would take some beating.