Sports writer, JASON OLIVER, previews this weekend’s International Rugby League action. It’s a day for the favourites. Three games; three headstarts.
New Zealand Kiwis v Mate Ma’a Tonga @ Mt Smart Stadium
|Roger Tuivasa-Sheck||1||Will Hopoate|
|Ken Maumalo||2||Daniel Tupou|
|Esan Masters||3||Kotoni Staggs|
|Joseph Manu||4||Solomona 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||Siosiua Taukeiaho|
|Kenneath 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|
History: Played 5, Kiwis 5, Tonga 1
Last Meeting: November 11, 2017: Tonga 28 def. New Zealand 22
Final Thoughts: It’s taken too long to get these two nations back together, but it’s going to be worth the wait. Tonga are trying to keep trending upwards and build their reputation as a heavy-hitter of international rugby league. Meanwhile, the Kiwis finished 2018 relatively strong but are in the midst of a bit of a rebuild. This game may be played at New Zealand’s home of rugby league, but Mt Smart Stadium will be painted red for this one. Tonga is already the best-supported team in the game and its sure to have an impact in this one.
The Kiwis boast the better-balanced side. They’re capable and have world-class quality across the park and on the bench. Tonga, however, are top heavy. Their pack might be the most destructive in the game, but their halves leave a lot to be desired. There are a few holes in the backline too.
With Shaun Johnson and Benji Marshall in the halves, the Kiwis will be able to play with a perfect mix of flare and control. If their pack holds firm in the middle, they’ll be the side to get through the arm-wrestle and score points. As we’ve seen at the Cowboys, there is only so much Jason Taumalolo can do. He and the pack around him will get up the field, but there are too many question marks out wide to be confident in points.
Fiji Bati v Lebanon Cedars @ Leichhardt Oval
|Marcelo Montoya||1||Anthony Layoun|
|Suliasi Vunivalu||2||Jayden El-Jalkh|
|Isaac Lumelume||3||Bilal Maabani|
|Mikaele Ravalawa||4||Allan Lockwood|
|Maika Sivo||5||Abbas Miski|
|Siti Moceidreke||6||Reece Robinson|
|Brandon Wakeham||7||Robbie Farah|
|Tui Kamikamica||8||Kayne Kalache|
|Joe Lovodua||9||Michael Lichaa|
|Korbin Sims||10||Tim Mannah|
|Viliame Kikau||11||Ahmad Ellaz|
|Taane Milne||12||Elie El-Zakhem|
|Jayson Bukuya||13||James Roumanos|
|D’Rhys Miller||14||Jacob Kiraz|
|Salesi Fainga’a||15||Jalal Bazzaz|
|Junior Roqica||16||Toufic El Hajj|
|Penioni Tagituimua||17||Nick Kassis|
History: Played 2, Fiji 1, Lebanon 1
Last Meeting: October 19th, 2014: Fiji 40 def. Lebanon 28
Final Thoughts: Lebanon are without Mitchell Moses and Josh Mansour for this one. Missing those two creates a massive gap between the Cedars and Fiji Bati. Already healthy favourites with their superior NRL experience, Fiji could do some damage here. In Tui Kamikamica, Korbin Sims and Viliame Kikau, Fiji have plenty of power through the middle of the field. While the backline is a puzzle put together with a few pieces out of position, the individual ability of the likes of Maika Sivo, Suliasi Vunivalu and Mikaele Ravalawa makes them dangerous out wide no matter who lines up where.
The lack of first-grade regulars is Lebanon’s biggest issue. The off-field issues they’re dealing with in regards to their relationship with Lebanon Rugby League won’t help either. Excitement and adrenaline could get the Cedars through the early stages of this match. However, Fiji’s quality is bound to show in the end. The -16.5 line is a big one for Fiji to cover, but with what they have out wide, a late flurry of points can get them there.
Toa Samoa v Papua New Guinea Kumuls @ Leichhardt Oval
|Samoa||Papua New Guinea|
|Jamayne Isaako||1||Edene Gebbie|
|Jorge Taufua||2||Junior Rau|
|Hymel Hunt||3||Brandon Nima|
|Marion Seve||4||Xavier Coates|
|David Nofoaluma||5||Terry Wapi|
|Chanel Harris-Tavita||6||Edwin Ipape|
|Anthony Milford||7||Kyle Laybutt|
|Junior Paulo||8||Enock Maki|
|Jarome Luai||9||James Segeyaro|
|James Gavet||10||Luke Page|
|Raymond Faitala-Mariner||11||Rhyse Martin|
|Jaydn Su’A||12||Nixon Putt|
|Martin Taupau||13||Moses Meninga|
|Mason Lino||14||Kurt Baptiste|
|Michael Chee-Kam||15||Zev John|
|Herman Ese’ese||16||Radley Brawa|
|Josh Aloiai||17||Stanton Albert|
History: Played 1, Samoa 1, Papua New Guinea 0
Last Meeting: November 4th, 2013: Samoa 38 def. Papua New Guinea 4
Final Thoughts: It’s a new era in Samoan rugby league. Following their disappointing showing at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, this is a new-look side. Marty Taupau has just pledged his allegiance to give them a world-class middle while Jamayne Isaako wears blue at the back for this one. Chanel Harris-Tavita and his recent NRL experience gives Anthony Milford a reliable partner in the halves. Meanwhile, the depth of this side goes far beyond what we’ve seen in recent years. Papua New Guinea might be in trouble here.
They’ve not been able to translate their emphatic 2017 season at Queensland Cup and World Cup level. With only three wins in 11 games this season, the Hunters sit 12th on the ladder in Q Cup. While this is a different side, it’s the cohesion and experience at club level that will eventually turn the Kumuls into a threat to international rugby league. Right now, they’re struggling. The Boas brothers have been a mainstay for the Kumuls but aren’t available for this one. Their experience in key playmaking positions will be sorely missed.
The Kumuls will come out firing, but this is a Samoan side filled with players accustomed to playing 80 minutes of NRL footy. Expect Toa Samoa to pull away at the end.