Mount Smart Stadium will be bathed in red when the Tongan fans arrive in force on Saturday when the Kiwis host Tonga in what is destined to be an exciting clash.
Team Form Guide
The Kiwis started their 2018 end of year tour with a 26-24 victory over Australia.
Buoyed by the win, they made the journey to England for three tests, they lost the first two (and the series) 18-16 and 20-14, but bounced back in the last match winning 34-0.
Unlike their New Zealand counterparts, Tonga only had two matches in 2018, a 38-22 win over Samoa and a 34-16 defeat to Australia.
Despite this defeat, Tonga has built a formidable squad and have injected life back into the international game and can never be taken lightly.
Benji Marshall makes his return to the Kiwis for the first time in seven years, partnering with Shaun Johnson in the halves. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck also makes his return for the first time since 2017 pushing Captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak to the wing. Jahrome Hughes and Briton Nikora have been rewarded for their NRL form, making their international debuts.
New Zealand Squad: 1. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 2. Ken Maumalo, 3. Esan Marsters, 4. Joseph Manu, 5. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 6. Shaun Johnson, 7. Benji Marshall, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Brandon Smith, 10. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 11. Kenneath Bromwich, 12. Briton Nikora, 13. Isaac Liu, 14. Jahrome Hughes, 15. Leeson Ah Mau, 16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 17. James Fisher-Harris, 18. Zane Tetevano, 19. Kieran Foran
John Asiata will make his debut for Tonga partnering with Tui Lolohea in the halves. Andrew Fifita is named to start pending how his night in front of the NRL judiciary goes. If he cannot play the Tongans still boast an intimidating forward pack lead by Jason Tamalolo.
Tongan Squad: 1. Will Hopoate, 2. Daniel Tupou, 3. Kotoni Staggs, 4. Solomona Kata, 5. David Fusitu’a, 6. John Asiata, 7. Tuimoala Lolohea, 8. Andrew Fifita, 9. Siliva Havili, 10. Siosiua Taukeiaho, 11. Tevita Pangai Junior, 12. Manu Ma’u, 13. Jason Taumalolo, 14. Manase Fainu, 15. Addin Fonua-Blake, 16. Peni Terepo, 17. Sitili Tupouniva, 18. Siona Katoa, 19. Tevita Tatola
Head to Head
There have only been five matches between these two sides with New Zealand winning the first four with relative ease.
The fifth match, however, saw Tonga defeat the Kiwis 28-22 after trailing 16-2 at halftime in the 2017 world cup.
Brothers in arms last week, my key battle is between Ken Maumalo and David Fusitu’a.
Fusitu’a was the talk of the town last time these teams clashed, scoring a hat trick and the Tongan fans will be expecting his name to be on the scoresheet come Saturday night.
Maumalo has been in career-best form this year and will be a crucial component in getting the Kiwis sets started strong. Expect to see plenty of bone-crunching hit up’s from the intimidating winger wearing black.
The Important Details
Date: Saturday 22nd June
Venue: Mount Smart Stadium
Kick-Off: 3:40 PM (5:40 pm)
Who will win?
The Kiwis have a lethal backline, and the rejuvenated Benji Marshall will be champing at the bit to wear the black jersey once again.
For the Kiwis to be victorious, they are going to have to keep the larger Tongan pack moving and tired, if they can do that they can get that electrifying backline involved targeting gaps in the defensive line. Brandon Smith will need to take advantage of the Tongan slow ruck defence with some quick dummy half runs if the Kiwis can run in open spaces they can tear the Tongans to shreds.
The Tongas have arguably the best forward pack in international rugby league. Big and mobile, they are intimidating and will be the crucial component for a Tongan victory.
Tonga has always struggled in the halves department, and this match is no different, so it is imperative that the forward pack dominate the smaller Kiwis forwards to give their halves as much time as possible if they bully the Kiwis, they win, it is as simple as that.
It will be an electrifying night at Mount Smart, the Tongan fans always come out in force, and it will be an amazing atmosphere.
However I think New Zealand will walk away with the win here, the lack of a decent halves pairing for Tonga may be their downfall whereas Marshall and Johnson have the experience needed to direct play behind a smaller pack.
Kiwis by 10