The anticipation for this first-ever meeting between the might of Australia and the emerging power of Tonga is palpable.
Neutral fans have been in awe of the passion and intensity frequently on show when the Mate Ma'a have clashed with Toa Samoa in recent years but Tonga's powerful surge into the final four of the last World Cup – and agonising two-point loss to England denying them a berth in the final – convinced everyone it's time for Tonga to get more chances against the 'big three'.
No doubt the defections from Australia and New Zealand of stars like Andrew Fifita, Jason Taumalolo, Siosiua Taukeiaho and David Fusitu'a boosted the little island's strength as a rugby league force and the result now is one of the most impressive forward packs in Test rugby league.
Their squad is boosted by the inclusion of veteran and spiritual leader Sika Manu who was in doubt with a knee injury. The only additions to the squad from the team that soundly beat Samoa back in June are Tevita Pangai jnr plus World Cup squad members Ben Murdoch-Masila and Solomone Kata. Manu Ma'u is missing – he has not played since a nasty facial fracture suffered in that very game – and Rabbitohs prop Tevita Tatola is not selected.
The Aussies will have few changes from the team that lost to New Zealand on Saturday; Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey are the two unused squad members who may get a chance while Mal Meninga will be hoping to have Luke Keary for more than the 16 minutes he got in a concussion-reduced debut.
Fifita: 'For us it will be bigger than Origin'
Key match-up: David Klemmer v Andrew Fifita. Two front row firebrands go head-to-head up front in one of the individual battles that could go a long way to deciding this test. Klemmer was the only green and gold forward to make over 100 metres against New Zealand (four of the Kiwis' forwards cracked 100 with two more over 90). Fifita can happily churn out 150+ metres in under 40 minutes of game time and with some other hard-running middles to share the load Fifita can go all out knowing he won't be required for 60 or 70 minutes of tackling. The two starting props are former Test and Origin teammates and each will be desperate to gain the edge over the other.
For the Kangaroos to win: We wrote in our preview last week that if the Kangaroos' new-look spine clicked that should be enough to get them over the line. It did not, and the highly-impressive Kiwis were good enough to make them pay. It's the same again this week; Tonga will look to blow the Roos away through the forwards but Australia unquestionably have more class in the playmaking options. However Daly Cherry-Evans, James Tedesco and Damien Cook will all need improvement from last week.
For the Mata Ma'a to win: The forward pack is where they can get them. The Kangaroos pack was OK against New Zealand but the Kiwis pack was better. If Taumalolo, Fifita, Taukeiaho, Addin Fonua-Blake, Pangai jnr and co can get a roll on then the Aussies won't be able to dictate how they want to play. If this happens Tonga have enough strike in the backs to capitalise.
Match: Australia v Tonga
Round 1 -
Venue: Mt Smart Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
Kangaroos Stat Attack: Strike centre Latrell Mitchell, up against one of the form defensive centres in the sport – Roosters teammate Joseph Manu – last week managed 142 metres, three line breaks, six tackle busts, three offloads and two line-break assists. "Get Latrell the ball" should be the order of the day.
Mate Ma'a Stat Attack: 475. That is the number of tackles busted by Tonga's seven NRL-based forwards in 2018 (dummy-halves not included in this analysis). Fifita (117) has almost as many as Australia's entire starting pack (127 between McLean, Klemmer, McGuire, Cordner and Kaufusi) combined for this year. Taumalolo's 97, Fonua-Blake's 71, Pangai's 64 and Terepo's 60 are each more than any Kangaroos forward managed this year (bench forward Tyson Frizell's 54 is the most in the squad). Of course there are other things the Australia forwards do well but in terms of a dynamic and hard-to-handle forward running game, the Tongans are miles ahead.
And another thing: Australia will field a maximum of nine players who took part in the World Cup final while Tonga could have as many as 16 of their 17 from their 20-18 World Cup semi-final loss to England on the field. If continuity counts for anything, that is a tick infavour of the Mate Ma'a.
Fullback for Australia is number 1 James TedescoFullback for Tonga is number 1 Will Hopoate
Winger for Australia is number 2 Dane GagaiWinger for Tonga is number 2 Daniel Tupou
Centre for Australia is number 3 Tom TrbojevicCentre for Tonga is number 3 Michael Jennings
Centre for Australia is number 4 Latrell MitchellCentre for Tonga is number 4 Solomone Kata
Winger for Australia is number 5 Valentine HolmesWinger for Tonga is number 5 David Fusitu'a
Five-Eighth for Australia is number 6 Luke KearyFive-Eighth for Tonga is number 6 Tuimoala Lolohea
Halfback for Australia is number 7 Daly Cherry-EvansHalfback for Tonga is number 7 Ata Hingano
Prop for Australia is number 8 David KlemmerProp for Tonga is number 8 Andrew Fifita
Hooker for Australia is number 9 Damien CookHooker for Tonga is number 9 Siliva Havili
Prop for Australia is number 10 Jordan McLeanProp for Tonga is number 10 Siosiua Taukeiaho
2nd Row for Australia is number 11 Boyd Cordner2nd Row for Tonga is number 11 Tevita Pangai Junior
2nd Row for Australia is number 12 Felise Kaufusi2nd Row for Tonga is number 12 Sika Manu
Lock for Australia is number 13 Josh McGuireLock for Tonga is number 13 Jason Taumalolo
Interchange for Australia is number 14 Ben HuntInterchange for Tonga is number 14 Sione Katoa
Interchange for Australia is number 15 Jake TrbojevicInterchange for Tonga is number 15 Addin Fonua-Blake
Interchange for Australia is number 16 Tyson FrizellInterchange for Tonga is number 16 Joe Ofahengaue
Interchange for Australia is number 17 Aaron WoodsInterchange for Tonga is number 21 Ben Murdoch-Masila
Australia: The Kangaroos have named an unchanged line-up to the one that went down to New Zealand last week, meaning Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Tyrone Peachey again miss out. Luke Keary is named at five-eighth after being concussed early last week.
Tonga: In a late change, Ben Murdoch-Masila (No.21) will start on the bench, with Peni Terepo left out of the 17. Tonga have a handful of changes from the mid-year Samoa Test with Solomone Kata and David Fusitu'a replacing Konrad Hurrell and Robert Jennings in the three-quarter line, plus Sika Manu and Tevita Pangai jnr replacing Manu Ma'u and Tevita Tatola in the pack.