Inspired by their raucous fans, Tonga promise to give the Kiwis a World Cup rugby league battle royal in Hamilton on Saturday night but the hosts also possess some lethal weapons of their own.
Key amongst them on the evidence of the Kiwis 74-6 thrashing of Scotland is born again Te Maire Martin and 21-year-old test newcomers Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Addin Fonua-Blake who have the potential to become Kiwi greats.
Martin, 22, is the 87kg standoff half who was dumped by the Panthers as Nathan Cleary’s halves partner and relegated to the NSW Cup before being snapped up mid-year by the North Queensland Cowboys for a reported bargain $A50,000 ($55,370).
Having replaced severely injured legend Jonathan Thurston to partner Michael Morgan, Martin learned a lot from both and played his part in the Cowboys fairy tale charge to the grand NRL final where they bowed out to the mighty Melbourne Storm.
A beautifully balanced, deceptively illusive player, the cool-headed Martin capped a classy performance with three tries against the Scots, the same as right wing Peta Hiku.
Repeating that performance against the fiery Tongans poses a far more severe test because the Pacific Islanders showed they too have the smarts to go with the power they demonstrated in their thrilling 32-18 triumph over brave Samoa compared with the Kiwis 38-8 win over the same side.
Never have I seen a happier, flag-waving crowd create such a wonderful atmosphere at a New Zealand event of any kind as both teams provided an epic battle in Hamilton that celebrated the massive contribution Pacific Islanders have brought to sport.
A shame, therefore, that some fans should engage in fights off the field after their teams showed so much controlled fury and respect on it.
While Cowboys star Jason Taumalolo had a strong game, Sio Siua Taukeaho was the outstanding performer in a powerful Tongan pack when he accumulated an incredible 250 metres.
Having received few chances to demonstrate their worth in the halves for the NZ Warriors, it was pleasing to see how well Ata Hingano and Tui Lolohea adapted to test footy with the former particularly outstanding.
With Fonua-Blake hitting the scales at the same 118kg as the late Jonah Lomu and Solomona 6kg heavier, the Kiwis also have muscle up front to meet the challenge, especially when one adds the pace and power of the 111kg Martin Taupau.
Add the massive defensive contribution from Simon Mannering and it’s a strong pack which is spoilt for choice at hooker with Thomas Leuluai, Danny Li and Elijah Taylor to choose from.
With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck starring against Scotland and Martin and Dean Whare’s slick passing offering scoring opportunities for those outside them, the improved backline cohesion provides special satisfaction. If only the Warriors could follow suit.
Meanwhile the All Blacks’ match against the Barbarians at Twickenham was supposed to provide a platform for the up and comers to show they were ready for test rugby.
Instead it was two flankers, one a former All Black and the other a Johannesburg Lion who hasn’t won Springbok selection, who captured the spotlight.
Steven Luatua, with two long runs from intercepts, had a rousing first half which no current All Black could match, while the speedy Kwagga Smith was the star of the second.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author.