20 Oct 2018

Volcanic Tongan reception awaits the Aussies

7:06 am on 20 October 2018

By Jamie Wall

Comment - Sell out. You don't often hear those words in the same breath as a sporting event held in this country these days, unless it's to do with the All Blacks. Which makes it seemingly even more extraordinary that there won't be a spare seat in the house at Mt Smart tonight, because neither of the teams playing this game of test rugby league are representing New Zealand.

Tonga rugby league fans at Mt Smart Stadium at training on Wednesday.

Tonga rugby league fans at Mt Smart Stadium at training on Wednesday. Photo: Photosport

What makes that more galling than perplexing for for the likes of the NZRL though, is that last weekend's test between the Kiwis and Kangaroos only attracted barely half the number of spectators.

Of course, if you are a league fan or have been driving around Auckland recently, this will come as no surprise. The sheer volume of Tongan patriotism has once again engulfed the city, just like it did last year during the successful Rugby League World Cup.

It's pretty difficult to equate this to anything else that's happening here in terms of fandom. In the past, you might be able to when people would camp outside grounds overnight in the 1950s and 1960s to watch the All Blacks play.

The 1985 Ranfurly Shield game between Canterbury and Auckland had the Lancaster Park terraces heaving to the point where the crowd literally lined the field of play.

But there hasn't been anything like this, at least in terms of visibility. The Tongan supporter base have made it very clear, through decorating their cars, houses and themselves, that this weekend is all about their team, their pride, their heritage. This really is more than just a game for them.

Which means that the Australians will be heading into one of the most hostile away fixture of their careers, right up there with a State of Origin level of intensity.

That hasn't stopped coach Mal Meninga naming an unchanged team to the one that was shocked by the Kiwis last weekend.

However, that means that Luke Keary comes back in after being knocked out cold in the loss. The Roosters half collected a knee into the side of his head, but he's been cleared to play despite staggering off the field in the 16th minute and not returning.

Keary will most likely now have to contend with the full ferocity of the Tongan edge runners, and that's not the only thing the men in red would have taken out of last weekend's game.

The Kiwis win did do a pretty good job of providing Tongan coach Kristian Woolf with a blueprint of how to topple the Australians.

They starved the Kangaroos of territory with an intense commitment to pin them inside their own 20, then smother them into kicking from well inside their own half.

The back three, in particular skipper Dallin Watene-Zelesniak, then ran the ball back with a thunderous intensity that maintained the grip the Kiwis had.

Sounds simple, but on top of that the Tongans will need a fair bit of magic from their big name players as well. Tevita Pangai Jr was outstanding for the Brisbane Broncos this year, as was Siosuia Taukieaho for the premiership-winning Roosters.

Warriors Solomone Kata and David Fusitu'a return to their home ground, the scene of a good number of the winger's NRL-leading 22 tries this season. But the biggest name will need the biggest game: Jason Taumalolo is key to a Tongan victory.

Make no mistake though, the Kangaroos are still very much hot favourites for this one.

Their misfiring spine is too good to have two bad games in a row, and their fast finish to draw within two points of the Kiwis last weekend is evidence of just how lethal they can be when they get a bit of ball.

That's if they can hear each other's calls, though. It's fitting that Mt Smart Stadium is in the cone of one of Auckland's many volcanoes, because the Tongan supporters are going to erupt come kickoff.