A Rugby League World Cup has never been more important than this one for Tonga. 2017 sees the Pacific Island nation, who are strong on pride and strength, boast an impressive squad filled with big bodies and brute force. The idea of ditching the bigger teams and returning to your childhood roots has become a story of this World Cup, and Tonga have benefited the most from it.
Gaining forwards Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita from the New Zealand and Australian sides respectively gives the team an impressive forward pack, supported by a solid backline with the likes of Konrad Hurrell, Manu Vatuvei and Solomone Kata filling out the squad.
What to expect from Tonga
Almost every aspect of the Tongan side will be a huge threat for the opposition. Most notably their forward pack has a list of household names from the NRL, in the starting 13 and off the bench. Power running and athleticism are the two main attributes to associate with the men in the middle, so Tonga’s work on the offensive side will be intriguing to watch. Sio Siua Taukieaho, Tevita Pangai Jr. and Joe Ofahengaue will be the main names off the bench, allowing their go forward to remain consistent throughout their games as well.
Professionalism and discipline will be two things Tonga will have to prepare and succeed at. As much as they enter as an exciting underdog with plenty of potential, the lack of experience in terms of winning could show through in some games. Players’ abilities to keep their heads up, their heads clear and their games clean will be important and a true telling to Tonga’s current and future status. Coach Kristian Woolf will have a big task in preparing his players mentally to compete with Australia, New Zealand and England.
Key players to watch
Jason Taumalolo has quickly become the best ball running forward in the NRL and the as a whole. His quick footwork and huge frame, similar to that of Andrew Fifita, makes him the ultimate attacking force. What will be important for Taumalolo to be ore valuable in the forwards is his defensive ability, which has potential to sky rocket. Coming off statistically his best season to date, and what is will be a passionate return to the Tongan nation, Taumalolo could be in for a huge tournament assuming all goes well.
Michael Jennings is another stand out player on the team, who has the capability of changing a backline play. Jennings has bounced around the Australian side over the years, but has returned to his roots to play for Tonga. The veteran centre still possesses the pace that he had in his early years and the footwork that remains one of his best attributes. Along with the likes of Hopoate and Fusitu’a next to him in the backline, Jennings’s experience and great form coming out of 2017 could see Tonga’s attacking potential increased tremendously.
Being in Group B, Tonga just needs to win one game to advance to the Finals series. It is unlikely though they will approach the ‘easy way out scenario’. The pool stage should see Tonga dispatch Scotland easily, but their true class and potential will be on show in their other two pool games. Tonga should have the upper hand against Samoa, and a competitive game against New Zealand should show how high their ceiling is.
Like the Kiwis and most other island nations, Tonga has question marks in the halves. Tuimoala Lolohea is arguably their best half, and even then his kicking game is sub-par and his ability to create chances is still developing. Without a sure sign over their output and from there setting up the backline, Tonga could struggle to convert metres into points off fourth and fifth tackles. Their forwards will be their strong point however, a handy weapon against Scotland and a tool they can match up well with against New Zealand and Samoa.
Everything points towards the Tongan side making the semi-finals, and from there nothing says that they can’t make some noise amongst the big boys, assuming the question marks are sorted.
Andrew Fifita (Cronulla Sharks), Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), David Fusitu’a (NZ Warriors), Siliva Havili (St George Illawarra Dragons), Ata Hingano (NZ Warriors), Will Hopoate (Captain) (Canterbury Bulldogs), Konrad Hurrell (Gold Coast Titans), Michael Jennings (Parramatta Eels), Solomone Kata (NZ Warriors), Sione Katoa (Penrith Panthers), Samisoni Langi (Leigh Centurions), Tuimoala Lolohea (Wests Tigers), Sika Manu (Hull FC), Manu Ma’u (Parramatta Eels), Sam Moa (Catalans Dragons), Ben Murdoch Masila (Salford Red Devils), Joe Ofahengaue (Brisbane Broncos), Tevita Pangai Jr. (Brisbane Broncos), Ukuma Ta’ai (Huddersfield Giants), Sio Siua Taukieaho (Sydney Roosters), Jason Taumalolo (North Queensland Cowboys), Peni Terepo (Parramatta Eels), Daniel Tupou (Sydney Roosters), Manu Vatuvei (Salford Red Devils).