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
Saturday 22nd June, 3:40pm

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck1Will Hopoate
Ken Maumalo2Daniel Tupou
Esan Masters3Kotoni Staggs
Joseph Manu4Solomona Kata
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak5David Fusitu’a
Shaun Johnson6John Asiata
Benji Marshall7Tuimoala Lolohea
Jesse Bromwich8Andrew Fifita
Brandon Smith9Siliva Havili
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves10Siosiua Taukeiaho
Kenneath Bromwich11Tevita Pangai-Junior
Briton Nikora12Manu Ma’u
Isaac Liu13Jason Taumalolo
Jahrome Hughes14Manase Fainu
Leeson Ah Mau15Addin Fonua-Blake
Nelson Asofa-Solomona16Peni Terepo
James Fisher-Harris17Sitili Tupouniua

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.

Tip: Handicap – Kiwis -3.5 @ $1.90

Fiji Bati v Lebanon Cedars @ Leichhardt Oval
Saturday 22nd June, 5:40pm

Marcelo Montoya1Anthony Layoun
Suliasi Vunivalu2Jayden El-Jalkh
Isaac Lumelume3Bilal Maabani
Mikaele Ravalawa4Allan Lockwood
Maika Sivo5Abbas Miski
Siti Moceidreke6Reece Robinson
Brandon Wakeham7Robbie Farah
Tui Kamikamica8Kayne Kalache
Joe Lovodua9Michael Lichaa
Korbin Sims10Tim Mannah
Viliame Kikau11Ahmad Ellaz
Taane Milne12Elie El-Zakhem
Jayson Bukuya13James Roumanos
D’Rhys Miller14Jacob Kiraz
Salesi Fainga’a15Jalal Bazzaz
Junior Roqica16Toufic El Hajj
Penioni Tagituimua17Nick Kassis

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.

Tip: Handicap – Fiji -16.5 @ $1.90

Toa Samoa v Papua New Guinea Kumuls @ Leichhardt Oval
Saturday 22nd June, 7:55pm

SamoaPapua New Guinea
Jamayne Isaako1Edene Gebbie
Jorge Taufua2Junior Rau
Hymel Hunt3Brandon Nima
Marion Seve4Xavier Coates
David Nofoaluma5Terry Wapi
Chanel Harris-Tavita6Edwin Ipape
Anthony Milford7Kyle Laybutt
Junior Paulo8Enock Maki
Jarome Luai9James Segeyaro
James Gavet10Luke Page
Raymond Faitala-Mariner11Rhyse Martin
Jaydn Su’A12Nixon Putt
Martin Taupau13Moses Meninga
Mason Lino14Kurt Baptiste
Michael Chee-Kam15Zev John
Herman Ese’ese16Radley Brawa
Josh Aloiai17Stanton Albert

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.

Tip: Handicap – Samoa -16.5 @ $1.90