An electric atmosphere is guaranteed in Auckland on Saturday when rugby league makes an emotional return to Mt Smart Stadium.
The Warriors’ last home game before the COVID-19 panedemic on August 30, 2019, and the last Test match played at the ground was five weeks before that on June 22 when New Zealand beat Tonga 34-14.
On that occasion it was Shaun Johnson stealing the show with a hat-trick but the veteran playmaker has made way for Melbourne’s Jahrome Hughes, who debuted off the bench in that Test and has gone on to establish himself as one of the game’s premier No. 7s.
Later that year the Tonga Invitational side produced one of the greatest upsets in the history of the international game when they stunned Australia 16-12 at Eden Park with Jason Taumalolo and Addin Fonua-Blake turning in phenomenal performances.
With those two warriors again leading from the front, Tonga are sure to provide stiff resistance for the Kiwis in a physical encounter that will whet the appetite for the World Cup later in the year in the UK.
* Official Tonga team will be named on Wednesday
Parramatta duo Dylan Brown and Marata Niukore will make their Kiwis debut after being named at five-eighth and center respectively, with Sharks winger Ronaldo Mulitalo also set for an international debut following his inclusion. Brown will partner Jahrome Hughes in the halves with Roosters center Joseph Manu to feature at fullback. Peta Hiku and Jordan Rapana are the other backs.
Up front, Isaiah Papali’i starts on an edge alongside Kenny Bromwich, with in-form Raiders forward Joseph Tapine named at lock. Brandon Smith has been named at hooker with Kieran Foran named on the bench to provide cover in the spine.
Panthers forward Moses Leota is the fourth debutant named by coach Michael Maguire as he joins Foran, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Briton Nikora on the bench.
Tonga (final team TBC)
Having been overlooked by NSW for Origin Two, Kotoni Staggs is expected to play five-eighth for Tonga alongside Dragons young gun Talatau Amone in the halves. Manly winger Christian Tuipulotu could get his shot on the wing, taking over from Daniel Tupou, who is with the Blues in Origin. The backline also looks set to feature Parramatta’s Will Penisini, Manly flyer Tolotau Koula and Dragon Moses Suli.
The forward pack boasts awesome power in the shape of Addin Fonua-Blake, Jason Taumalolo, Haumole Olakau’atu and Keaon Koloamatangi. Tonga will be coached by caretaker coach Dean Young for this match with Kristian Woolf unavailable because of English Super League duties with St Helens.
Jahrome Hughes v Talatau Amone
Storm star Hughes has played in a winning grand final side and been victorious at Test level so he knows what to expect on the big stage in front of a raucous crowd. Dragons prodigy Amone is 25 games into his NRL career and looking more assured with each passing week, teaming nicely with Ben Hunt in the halves for the Red V. The 20-year-old has already had eight try assists and eight line break assists in 2022 while Hughes has been typically efficient with 10 try assists and six line break assists. A classic battle of experience and youth that will go a long way to determining the winner of this international showpiece.
The Kiwis played four Test matches in 2019, winning three and losing one. After beating Tonga in June they went on to lose 26-4 to Australia in Wollongong in November before beating Great Britain twice – 12-8 at Eden Park in Auckland and 23-8 in Christchurch.
The Kiwis’ record at Mt Smart in Test matches is nine wins from 15 matches while Tonga have played three times here for three losses.