7 Sep 2018

The Tongan tide is coming back in

11:24 am on 7 September 2018

Opinion - So, it turns out the Denver Test was a dud but at least some good has come out of it, writes Jamie Wall.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis. Photo: PhotoSport

At the risk of saying 'we told you so', the signs were there way back in February that the chances of Mile High Stadium being full were low, the chances of the match being repeated were even lower, and the chances of making any money off it were even lower than that.

So yeah, we told you so.

In fact, the only memorable thing about the match that was won 36-18 by England was a shockingly bad version of God Defend New Zealand.

The fact that the NZRL would probably lose even more money by taking the organisers of the event to court, because there's nothing to pay them even if they win the case, pretty much sums up the whole clown show.

The Kiwis had a very underdone buildup, not least due to the fact that coach Michael Maguire had only been in the job for a matter of weeks before the fixture. A host of key players like Shaun Johnson, Tohu Harris and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck were ruled out by the Warriors due to injury concerns. Even Mr Dependable Simon Mannering pulled out - although he went to the extreme length of retiring altogether to avoid playing.

But, at least some good has come out of it this week. The fixtures that should have emerged from the surprisingly successful Rugby League World Cup last year have been set in stone for next month and 2019, likely due in part to the failure of the Denver venture.

Namely, getting Mate Ma'a Tonga back on the field and having them play a rematch of the stunning pool match win over the Kiwis they pulled off in the World Cup.

Not only that, but also the match that never was: a showdown with Australia, which came within a hair's breadth of happening last year. Of course, England won that game due to a controversial call on the last play so this match scheduled for Mt Smart Stadium will provide a bit of closure to the fans that watched on for that one.

Tongan fans turned out in force at Mount Smart Stadium during the Rugby League World Cup.

Tongan fans turned out in force at Mount Smart Stadium during the Rugby League World Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

There were legions of Tongan supporters that day, indeed the entire tournament was bathed in a bright red glow of the passion of a nation.

The side itself wasn't just a pack of scrappy upstarts punching above their weight, which is the usual narrative for a good sporting underdog story. Rather, this was an actual team of verified NRL superstars that had chosen to buck the trend and play for the country of their heritage. It should've set in motion a new world order in the notoriously top-heavy international rugby league landscape.

It didn't come about easily, though. The painful way in which Jason Taumalolo renounced his place in the Kiwis was a shock, yet he was joined by Andrew Fifita who turned his back on the Kangaroos.

This was the template to expand the game. By strengthening Mate Ma'a Tonga and having a truly competitive tournament, it meant that the public suddenly had an interest in test football again.

While the Australians will head into next month's test against Tonga as favourites, they will be under no illusions of just how tough an assignment it will be. Especially if they get touched up by the Kiwis the week before, a side which will have a serious point to prove after last year and then the Denver debacle.

But it's the match put down for next year that should pique the most interest. The rematch between the Kiwis and Tonga has the potential to turn the clash into a State Of Origin type event, helped in part by the likes of Taumalolo treating it like one anyway.

This will be massive, both in demand for tickets and hype driven by Tongan supporters. It's highly likely the Kiwis will be confronted with a hostile and extremely loud crowd mostly cheering for the other team, in their own home stadium.

Given the All Blacks' diminished schedule due to the World Cup later in the year, there is every chance that the Kiwis v Tonga game will be the sporting highlight of next winter.

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