New Zealand will face Tonga in arguably the standout international fixture this weekend, as Mate Ma'a look to build on the progress made during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
When they last met during the World Cup, it was Tonga who came back from 16-2 down to upset the Kiwis 28-22 — staking their claim as a genuine contender on the international stage and the main threat to the tier one nations going forward.
A tough loss to Australia last year showed there was still some way to go for Tonga, but with a packed Mount Smart Stadium likely full of red to cheer them on this Saturday, they'll certainly fancy their chances at raising the bar once again.
For New Zealand, Coach Michael Maguire will have fond memories of the Kiwis' gritty win over the Kangaroos late last year but a mixed tour of England later in the year showed that there's still plenty of improvement to be had in the side.
Veteran playmaker Benji Marshall returns to the halves alongside Shaun Johnson with Kodi Nikorima unavailable, while the decision from Martin Taupau and Jamayne Isaako to play for Samoa creates an opening for new players to stand up.
It'll be fascinating to see how the brute strength of Tonga matches up with the skill of New Zealand, and which teams attribute has a bigger impact on Saturday.
Benji reflects on the day he thought would never come
Date 一 Saturday, June 22
Time 一 3:40pm AEST (5:40pm NZT)
Venue 一 Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
LIVE STREAM AND TV INFORMATION
Live Stream 一 9Now, Foxtel Go, Kayo Sports, Watch NRL (exc. Australia)
TV 一 Live coverage via 9GEM and FOX League (Ch.502)
|Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (capt.)||1||Will Hopoate|
|Ken Maumalo||2||Daniel Tupou|
|Esan Marsters||3||Kotoni Staggs|
|Joseph Manu||4||Solomone Kata|
|Dallin Watene-Zelezniak||5||David Fusitu'a|
|Shaun Johnson||6||John Asiata|
|Benji Marshall||7||Tuimoala Lolohea|
|Jesse Bromwich||8||Andrew Fifita|
|Brandon Smith||9||Siliva Havili|
|Jared Waerea-Hargreaves||10||Sio Siua Taukeiaho|
|Kenny Bromwich||11||Tevita Pangai Junior|
|Briton Nikora||12||Manu Ma'u|
|Isaac Liu||13||Jason Taumalolo|
|Jahrome Hughes||14||Manase Fainu|
|Leeson Ah Mau||15||Addin Fonua-Blake|
|Nelson Asofa-Solomona||16||Peni Terepo|
|James Fisher-Harris||17||Sitili Tupouniua|
|Zane Tetevano||18||Sione Katoa|
|Kieran Foran||19||Tevita Tatola|
|Michael Maguire||Coach||Kristian Woolf|
New Zealand and Tonga have faced off multiple times over the years with the most recent being in the group stage of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, where Tonga snatched a historic 28-22 victory over the Kiwis. New Zealand have been the victorious side in the previous four matches, while the first time the two teams met on the international stage was in the 1995 World Cup where the Kiwis won 25-24.
NRL.com preview New Zealand's clash with Tonga
Brandon Smith (New Zealand) vs. Siliva Havili (Tonga)
With all eyes on the backs of the Kiwis and the forwards of the Tongans, plenty of focus will come down to the men in the number nine jersey as the link between the those two parts of the team — two players who surprisingly don't feature regularly in this position during their club football. Havili has moved in to hooker currently with Josh Hodgson out injured and has done a good job defensively but doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of his attack — something which Smith is slightly better at with his speed but only a little as he too features more commonly as a forward.
With the likes of Jahrome Hughes (New Zealand) and Manase Fainu (Tonga) on the bench for the respective teams, it'll be interesting to see how those two impact on the role of Smith and Havili on the night. Fainu in particular has been superb out of dummy half for the Sea Eagles, and his elusiveness could be a game-changer for Tonga during the second half against some tired forwards of the Kiwis.
Filled with NRL superstars, this is undoubtedly the marquee international matchup of the round and it shouldn't disappoint in front of a packed Mount Smart Stadium. New Zealand will be determined to turn around the result from the 2017 World Cup, and while there's been a lot of focus around the strength of the Tongan forward pack, the Kiwis aren't exactly light in this department. Jesse Bromwich and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves are two of the most experienced props in international football while Nelson Asofa-Solomona adds something extra off the bench.
With the class and experience of Johnson and Marshall controlling things in the halves and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck back from injury chiming in at fullback, we think the Kiwis will have too much for Tonga in the end and re-stake their claim as one of the premiere sides in international rugby league with a strong win.
New Zealand by 12.