By Ben Ryder
With the second round of Oceania Cup games scheduled in October/November 2019, Rugby League Planet takes an in-depth look at each competing island nation and what the game of Rugby League is doing for them, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, and the nations chances at winning their respective pools.
This week it’s Mate Ma’a Tonga
Recent History: After their resounding success at the RLWC in 2017, Tonga have slightly lost their wildcard factor recently, losing games against the Tier One Kangaroos and Kiwis. Most notably, it was their lack of intensity in defence (conceding six tries in each test against both Australia and NZ) and playmaking ability (a mere two try assists between the players at 6 and 7 in 160 minutes of football- the same amount produced by their forward pack if that wasn’t alarming enough) that let them down. However, Tonga is still a team to be reckoned with and you can guarantee they won’t be underestimated by the Tier One teams in their Pool by any means.
Strengths: Continuity, and a very strong version at that. Mate Ma’a have been able to build upon the squad foundations set during the RLWC, with 12 of the 17 who played in their latest test against the Kiwis being involved in the campaign. Add in the fact that the team continues to add class players (Kotoni Staggs, Manase Fainu) to an already strong roster (that forward pack is as good as any in the international scene), and a glance over a possible starting 13 should make any Kangaroos or Kiwis fan very nervous.
Weaknesses: It’s the elephant in the room. Mate Ma’a have a devastating and mobile forward pack, some classy backs to finish off any attacking raids, but desperately lack some leadership and control in the halves to gel the team together. Tui Lolohea was dynamite in the second half of the test against the Kangaroos, running the ball and breaking the line at will. That running game went missing against the Kiwis though, running the ball five times for a gain of only 20 meters. Playing Asiata at five-eighth to help Lolohea out was an interesting risk to take by coach Kristian Woolf but ultimately backfired against a rampant Kiwis outfit, with Mate Ma’a often looking lost in attack. Lolohea really needs a level-headed halfback by his side to control the team and allow him to unleash his running game, and whether that is Hingano or another (even Taumalolo at this rate), they really need to stand up for Tonga to go up against the Tier One nations.
Their X-Factor: Could it be anyone else? Jason Taumalolo was the spark that allowed Tonga to become a genuine Rugby League threat on the international stage in 2017 and has been leading the charge for them ever since. A staple in the Cowboys pack, Taumalolo has only failed to crack the 200 meter mark 3 times in 12 games this year (including an injury affected performance against the Broncos) and boasts a 92% tackle efficiency. If the stats don’t scare you enough, the confidence he brings to his team, especially to his fellow forwards, definitely should. The likes of Andrew Fifita, Tevita Pangai Jr and Manu Ma’u will be firing on all cylinders at their fearsome best with “JT” leading the way.
Rising Star: Manase Fainu is the perfect number nine to take advantage of the powerful Tongan forward pack. An Under 20’s Grand Final winner with the Sea Eagles in 2017, Fainu has helped lift a rejuvenated Manly side to the top eight and beyond this season, firstly as a livewire off the bench and then as a starting hooker. If Mate Ma’a are to pull off an upset in their pool, expect Fainu to play a big part with his quick bursts and “eyes up” play out of dummy half.
What It Means To Them: Wherever Tonga goes, their supporters follow. In droves. Who could forget the RLWC Semi Final against England, where the 30,000 strong sea of red looked like they were just about ready to collapse the entire stadium? The 24,000 fans that turned up to watch Mate Ma’a play Samoa in their World Cup pool match in Hamilton were much the same. With Tonga now boasting some genuine stars in their squad, the nation has totally bought into their team (national parades and all!). And with the upcoming tests against the Kiwis and Kangaroos fast approaching, as well as the Great Britain Lions, you can guarantee that the sea of red will be on their feet and will get right behind Mate Ma’a.