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Kiwi aggression, Mal's picks and Fonua-Blake's big mouth: Five things to watch in the Pacific Championships

26th October, 2023
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26th October, 2023
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We roll into week three of international footy and it’s shaping up very nicely indeed.

Australia had the week off in both men’s and women’s, but in their absence, New Zealand arrived with a bang: the Kiwis were excellent in dispatching Samoa and the Kiwi Ferns put away Tonga with little fuss.

Over in Port Moresby, Fiji got on the board with a hard-fought win over the Cook Islands and now run into hosts Papua New Guinea, which is exactly the sort of clash fans of the international game absolutely love to see.

In both men’s competitions, the finalists for next weekend are already set, which only heaps further narrative onto this weekend, where they get to build enmity before the final showdown at the start of November. Let’s get into it.

Will the Kangaroos and Kiwis live up to the hype?

Make no mistake about it, this is a huge game this weekend. It’s been mentioned in some quarters as a dead rubber, as Samoa are already out of the competition and thus next week’s final is set, but actually, it’s probably more like a dress rehearsal.

The real deal will come in a week’s time in Hamilton, when we will see the trophy actually decided, but this game is already filled with intrigue.

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In a time where we don’t really get to see multi-Test series, it’s the closest that we have to that feeling: Australia haven’t played New Zealand in back to back games since 1998, and it’s a narrative lost to the game.

This game’s result won’t decide the Pacific Championship, but the two packs can lay down a marker and get the argument started ahead of next week’s rematch.

In particular, the Kiwis need to make this first shot count. They were exceptional against Samoa last week and will hope to build on that, especially in the middle, where James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Joseph Tapine and Nelson Asofa-Solomona can more than match the Aussies.

Last year’s World Cup semi was the best game of the tournament, and everyone there would gladly have paid to see it again a week later. Now, we get that chance.

Do performances matter to Mal?

On the Kangaroos side, Mal Meninga has shuffled his pack a little in terms of team selection, giving game time to Tom Flegler and Jake Trbojevic in the middle, returning Val Holmes to his wing and including Nicho Hynes on the bench. Cam Munster has been unwell, too, so don’t be surprised if Nicho starts in his stead.

Much as Mal has every right to use his squad, it always comes with a little caveat. He’s a noted picker-and-sticker, and across the World Cup, one did get the feeling that the performances on the field didn’t really matter that much in terms of getting picked for the big games.

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There might not be much to glean from games against Fiji, Italy, Scotland and Lebanon, sure, but still: no matter how well some players went, they were never likely to feature for the 17 when the whips got cracking. You could have selected a squad for the final before a ball had been kicked and guessed correctly.

Campbell Graham, for example, excelled in his performances and scored five tries across two games, but was never seriously considered. Jeremiah Nanai, too, was exceptional but didn’t get a look in come the crunch.

If you’re Nicho, Jurbo or Flegler, what can you do this weekend to win that place next week? That’s the big question. Ask them, of course, and they know the answer: put your best foot forward and give yourself a chance. 

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Can the Kiwi Ferns get it right this time?

New Zealand’s women ran the Jillaroos fairly close two weeks ago, but didn’t help themselves.

Coach Ricky Henry moved a lot of pieces around in his spine before finding something that worked, leaving Kiwi fans watching on and wondering what might have been had he started with the final combination.

A week later against Tonga, he did that and was rewarded with a convincing win, albeit against weaker opposition who then had a player sent off early in the second half.

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Now, they get round two against Australia. He’s moved everything around again, reinstating Api Nicholls at fullback – where she was moved from midway through the first game – and putting Shanice Parker, who took over at the back, onto a wing. Tyla Nathan-Wong retains her 6 jumper alongside undoubted star Raecene McGregor.

The Jillaroos can pick whoever they want, but have had limited changes. Caitlan Johnston, who changed the game when she entered in Round 1, is out, as is winger Juliia Robinson, but beyond that, they’re pretty much full strength.

Tigers breakout star Jakiya Whitfield is the big addition on the wing and Emma Manzelmann and Yasmin Clydesdale come onto the bench.

Other than that, it’s Tamika Upton looking to keep on keeping on from fullback, Ali Brigginshaw pulling the strings as usual and the star centres, Isabelle Kelly and Jess Sergis, looking to bust the line. 

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Is PNG v Fiji the clash of the round?

One doesn’t have to be a rugby league hipster to get excited about Papua New Guinea v Fiji, but it helps.

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This should be a bell-ringer in Port Moresby, with the Kumuls well rested from their stroll over the Cook Islands and the Bati better for a run last week.

These two are well used to each other – this is their tenth meeting in 14 years – and, like the Kangaroos and Kiwis, will get another crack next weekend for the big prize.

The same rules apply in terms of setting the tone for the final, but with the added spice that, last time they met at last year’s Pacific Tests in Campbelltown, the Kumuls pulled off an almighty upset.

This time around they’re at home, a huge advantage given the raucous home support in PNG, but face a much stronger Fijian outfit with Sunia Turuva – who made his debut last year – now as seasoned pro and Jahream Bula taking over his mantle as the next big thing.

Justin Olam is missing for PNG, but they now get to call upon Edwin Ipape, a revelation in Super League, and Rhyse Martin, a true talisman of the side.

It should be everything we love about the international game: huge hits, lots of flair, passion in the stands and, knowing these two sides, probably a fair dose of chaos too. Sunday afternoon is appointment viewing.

England's John Bateman is tackled by Tonga's Siliva Havili (right) and Addin Fonua-Blake during the International Test Series match at the Totally Wicked Stadium, St. Helens. Picture date: Sunday October 22, 2023. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

England’s John Bateman is tackled by Tonga’s Siliva Havili and Addin Fonua-Blake. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Can Tonga save the series?

Last but not least is Tonga, who got off to an exciting, if disappointing start to their tour by going down 22-18 to England in St Helens.

The three Test series allowed familiarity to breed contempt, and plenty of that has already kicked in, with England coach Shaun Wane falling out with Mate Ma’a Tonga captain Addin Fonua-Blake following his post-match comments last weekend.

“I feel like we lost the game ourselves, I don’t feel like they beat us,” said the Warriors enforcer, a take seen as disrespectful by the pugnacious former front rower Wane.

“To say they didn’t feel we won the game is bit insulting to us but it’s been said,” Wane told NRL.com. “We’ll deal with it. We just don’t do that sort of thing.”

Kristian Woolf’s men travel to Huddersfield knowing that they need a win to keep the series alive and much as AFB might think they lost themselves the first Test, they will know what they are up against.

Jack Welsby, the new captain of England, was the standout and Tonga need to do a better job on him, while a judicious early shot on half Mikey Lewis might also go a long way to halting his running threat, which tore them apart at times last week.

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Fonua-Blake wasn’t entirely wrong, as Tonga largely matched England and were defeated by an intercept try, but they can’t dwell on that. It is, as they say in that part of the world, fish and chip paper now. 

The task is to improve week to week and force a decider. Losing once can be talked away, but twice can’t.

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