Tonga booked its place in the 2017 World Cup via a bruising 28-8 victory over a plucky Cook Islands outfit at Campbelltown Stadium, with rookie New Zealand Warriors centre Solomone Kata starring in the relatively unfamiliar fullback role.
The scene was set for an intense encounter pre-match as the Kukis’ war dance advanced over the halfway line and came face to face with a wall of fired up Mate Ma’a Tonga opponents.
Cook Islands, coached by former Kiwi Test forward Alex Chan, went in as rank outsiders with only a handful of experienced elite players – headlined by Canberra utility-back Jordan Rapana and Wigan centre Anthony Gelling, while the likes of Drury Low, Francis Molo and Sam Mataora have dipped their toes at NRL level.
In contrast, Tonga’s only non-NRL player was halfback Daniel Foster – although there were plenty of changes to the side that narrowly went down to Samoa in an epic Test at the beginning of May.
The Kukis posted the first try through winger Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and led 8-6 after 18 minutes when Gelling crossed. The underdogs trailed by only four points with less than 20 minutes to go thanks to some magnificent scrambling defence, but Tonga’s class and experience told in the final quarter as they posted three unanswered tries.
Kata, who debuted for Tonga earlier this year in his customary centre spot (Warriors teammate and new Kiwis rep Tuimoala Lolohea was at fullback), was the undeniable star in the No.1 jumper. The youngster laid on Tonga’s first try for Jorge Taufua, scored a brilliant double in the space of six minutes when the game was on the line and landed four goals.
Mahe Fonua and Peni Terepo – who sealed the match with a stunning solo effort – were Tonga’s other try-scorers.
Tonga are likely to be without a handful of their stars for the World Cup in two years’ time, however. Along with soon-to-be New Zealand Test debutant Lolohea, Kata is clearly on the Kiwis’ radar after being named in the train-on squad for the tour of England, as were second-rower Manu Ma’u and Sosaia Feki. Ma’u lined up for Tonga on Saturday, but Feki did not.
Warriors prop Albert Vete is sure to push for Kiwis selection down the track, while Joe Ofahengaue is in the sights of Queensland and Australia after a fine rookie campaign for the Broncos.
Cook Islands, after beating Wales at the 2013 World Cup, could only bemoan the international eligibility laws that prevented some of their best players from taking the field against Tonga. Queensland Origin hopefuls Valentine Holmes and Dylan Napa, the latter representing the Pacific nation at the World Cup two years ago, were not eligible after pledging their allegiance to Australia, while future NSW prospect Tepai Moeroa was in the same boat.
Brad Takairangi, Isaac John, Tupou Sopoaga, Zeb Taia, Tinirau Arona and Dominique Peyroux were among the 2013 reps who turned the Kukis down or were not considered.
— Joanna Lester (@joannalester) October 17, 2015