New Zealand have returned to international rugby league action in fine style, downing Tonga 26-6, and sending a warning shot to Australia ahead of the 2022 Rugby League World Cup in October.
A capacity 27,000 crowd jammed themselves into at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium to watch one of the most-anticipated league match-ups of the year. But given the vast majority were from New Zealand’s huge Tongan community, they would have been disappointed as the Kiwis raced to a 12-0 lead after only seven minutes.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire was a happy man at full-time, describing the performance as “really impressive”.
“This has been three or four years in the making, I know we’ve had a two-year break but to see the boys walk straight back in and take control … they were able to be very strong.”
First Jahrome Hughes barged his way over from close to the line, before Jordan Rapana finished off a long-range move to dive in under the posts.
To their credit, the Tongans took the only real opportunity in the half, with Sione Katoa crossing in the corner after some lovely build-up work by Viliami Penisini. But that simply inspired the Kiwis to slam the door shut, with aggressive defence by the middle forwards barely allowing the Tongans out of their half.
Captain Jesse Bromwich said he wasn’t surprised at the fast start. “We went out there with a game plan and wanted to put a lot of energy in our defence. We put a lot of pressure on early, keep building and we ran away with it.”
The break saw the Kiwis take a commanding 20-6 lead after Rapana kicked a penalty goal before Dylan Brown floated a beautiful ball out wide for Ronaldo Mulitalo to score the try of the match. Both debutants had solid games, but the real standouts were Jesse Bromwich and Joseph Manu, who dictated play on both attack and defence.
By the time Isiah Papali’I stretched out to score in the 62nd minute, the game was already won, but the Kiwis kept pressing their advantage right until the end.
Despite the unusually flat Tongan performance, the crowd was in full voice, with Mt Smart once again becoming a sea of red Tongan flags. That really was the only highlight from their perspective, with stars like Jason Taumalolo and Addin Fonua-Blake well contained and Kotoni Staggs and Talatau Amone having a hard time getting anything going in the halves, with Tonga unable to force even one goal-line drop-out.
Fullback Joseph Manu’s 398 running metres was a statistical highlight of the match, but Maguire was quick to praise the efforts of the entire side.
“Across the park, the forwards laid a really strong foundation. (The Tongans) are not a small team, they’re coming at you hard into contact. All of the players aimed up for each other … and I know there’s a lot we can improve on, so I’m really looking forward to the World Cup.”
Bromwich reflected on the past two years of inaction in Test rugby league, saying it was a real honour to play in the first game back in New Zealand. “A lot of us haven’t been able to come home in the last two years. But to come out to that atmosphere, there’s nothing quite like it,” he said.
Earlier, the Kiwi Ferns picked up where they left off with a dominant 50-12 win over Tonga in their women’s rugby league Test.
Led by the halves pairing of Raecene McGregor and Laishon Jones, the Kiwi Ferns were going at a point a minute after the first 15 minutes, then launched a three try blitz before halftime to kill the game off as a contest despite Jones landing only three conversions from her eventual 11 attempts.
Centre Page McGregor, the younger sister of Raecene, crossed after only four minutes after she found a big hole on the Tongan edge defence. Madison Bartlett and Katelyn Vaha’akolo followed in quick succession, as the NRLW experience in the Kiwi Ferns became evident at Mt Smart Stadium.
Most of the side have played in the fast-growing NRLW, and their superior physicality was always going to make this an uphill battle for the Tongan side that was mostly drawn from the local Auckland club competition.
After the halftime deficit stood at 30-0, the onslaught continued from the Kiwi Ferns in the second half. Kararaina Wira-Kohu crossed after only a couple of minutes of the restart, then Bartlett got her second only three minutes later.
However, the biggest cheer were for the two Tongan tries, with China Polata barging over from close range and then Haylee Hifo streaking away just before fulltime. The rapturous reception made by the big crowd saw Tongan flags flying and was the perfect way to usher in the men’s game that followed.