In today’s edition of ‘Starting XVII’, we focus on Tonga.
They shocked the rugby league world in 2019 when they completed huge wins over Great Britain and Australia, albeit under the ‘Tonga Invitational’ title following a dispute between players and the Tongan National Rugby League.
Those victories stamped their marker down as serious World Cup contenders, after several years of building the squad and infrastructure to compete with the Tier One countries.
They now have a line up full of star names based both down under and in the UK, so here’s how we think they’ll line up…
Fullback – Will Hopoate
Versatile outside back Hopoate is the perfect candidate at the back, although he did have his role contested for during last Autumns internationals. Brisbane youngster Tesi Niu showed up well there in the win over Great Britain but will likely act as a solid backup to the experienced Canterbury Bulldog. The 28-year-old has been an influential part of the Tongans’ uprising and provides reassurance and security as the last line of defence.
Wingers – David Fusitu’a and Daniel Tupou
Size and pace are two words that perfectly sum up these two. A high kick to the corner close to their opponents’ line is one of Tonga’s main strike plays, primarily given the fact that Fusitu’a and Tupou stand at 6 foot 2 and 6 foot 5 respectively. They’re unbelievably athletic and can finish a try with inches to spare thanks to their long limbs.
Centres – Kotoni Staggs and Konrad Hurrell
The two centre spots will be particularly hard for head coach Kristian Woolf to choose. We’ve gone with Staggs and Hurrell, but recent Catalans signing Israel Folau and NRL veteran Michael Jennings will be vying for places too. 21-year-old Staggs has come out of nowhere for Brisbane, earning a regular starting spot after impressing with his strong but awkward running style and solid defence. Powerhouse Hurrell has reignited his career since joining Leeds. He’s enjoying his rugby and that’s having a profound effect on his performances. His constant energy and infectious enthusiasm will also be crucial for team morale.
Halves – Tui Lolohea and Ata Hingano
After years of the halves being a persistent problem position, the Tongans have finally found a settled partnership. Their expansive playing style means both halfbacks can generally play what’s in front of them, which suits Lolohea and Hingano to a tee. The pair played crucial parts in the shock wins over Great Britain and Tonga last year and will arguably be one of the most underrated partnerships in the competition.
Props – Andrew Fifita and Siosiua Taukeiaho
An intimidating front row pair by anyone’s standards, Fifita and Taukeiaho were among the first big names to pledge their allegiance when Tonga begun to assemble their star-studded side. Fifita is among the NRL’s biggest boppers and has a excellent knack for breaking tackles and finding an offload, while Taukeiaho is used more as a battering ram, and is part of a dying breed as a goal-kicking prop.
Hooker – Siliva Havili
There’s three top options at hooker, however it’s unknown whether 21-year-old Manase Fainu will be available due to his ongoing court case in relation to a stabbing incident last October. That just leaves Canterbury’s Sione Katoa and Havili, but we’ve backed the Canberra Raiders man to get the starting shirt. He’s a stocky, smart no.9 and has been part of the Tonga squad since 2013, so is well aware of both his own abilities and those of his teammates.
Second Rowers – Manu Ma’u and Tevita Pangai Jnr
This powerhouse back row make up the third and fourth members of what is a scarily good forward five. Aptly named ‘Tongan Terminator’ Ma’u has already made an impression at Hull FC, scoring one try in three games and becoming an instant hit with fans. Pangai Jnr, meanwhile, has been on the up at Brisbane for some years now, racking up 74 appearances and impressing fans and pundits with his late footwork and natural offloading ability.
Loose Forward – Jason Taumalolo
Who else? Leading the side at loose forward is one of the best forwards the game has ever seen. The 26-year-old has always been the full package – possessing the strength and skill to constantly overpower opposition defenders with ease and leave them in his wake. An NRL Premiership winner and former Dally M Medallist, Taumalolo is the kind of box office player that will inspire his teammates and lead by example with his on-field exploits.
Subs – John Asiata, Addin Fonua-Blake, Joe Ofahengaue, Ben Murdoch-Masila
Their star-studded starting line up is supplemented by an equally quality bench. Versatile Asiata is a ball-handling forward and adds some creativity to the pack. Aggressive prop Fonua-Blake is one of the top young forwards in the NRL and will be helped by the slightly more experienced Ofahengaue. He’s been leading Brisbane’s line for the past few years and is no stranger to fronting up against top quality opposite numbers. Finally, Warrington back rower Murdoch-Masila is an explosive runner who garnered much praise on the back of his performances against the Lions and Kangaroos. He’s moving back to the NRL in 2021 but is a shoo-in to be heading back to UK soil a few months later for the World Cup.