With week 2 now behind us and with the quarterfinals in our sights, it’s easy to forget that we still have another week of pool games on our hands.
The finals make-up is becoming clearer and clearer. From Group A, barring some monumental upsets, Australia, England and Lebanon will make it through in that order. From Group C, PNG only has to beat the USA to ensure their qualification for the quarter-finals, while Italy will have to beat Fiji by at least 46 points to qualify on for and against.
In Group B, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand will go through to the quarter-finals, but the answer to who will top the group and earn themselves arguably an easier quarter-final is still very much up in the air.
Samoa has third place locked up, and will more than likely face the Kangaroos in the quarterfinals. Tonga and New Zealand meanwhile, will do battle on Saturday for the right to play Lebanon. Whoever wins this right will fancy their chances. The loser, on the other hand, will likely face a red-hot Fiji – a much trickier proposition than facing the Cedars.
Opening their campaign against Samoa 2 weeks ago, the Kiwis were outstanding against quality opposition. The Samoan forwards attempted to create a storm, and to an extent they succeeded. But the Kiwis weathered that storm and went on to put a score on the Samoans.
Considering that Scotland and New Zealand drew 18 all just 12 months ago, it is quite impressive that this Kiwis side (arguably weaker than the side from last year’s 4 Nations) were able to do what they did to the Scots on Saturday. Obviously, the Scots are weaker than they were a year ago due to the fact that all their NRL players are injured. But it’s still an incredible turn around for the Kiwis.
The Tongans too have impressed so far this tournament. Like the Kiwis, they disposed of Scotland with ease. Samoa gave them a bit more trouble, but in the end they recorded a comfortable victory.
Unlike the Kiwis however, Tonga have not yet put in an 80-minute performance. They were guilty of letting both Scotland and Samoa back into the game somewhat, while the Kiwis did neither. However, I do expect Tonga to step it up a notch against New Zealand. There is enough big-game experience in this Tongan side to know that anything short of an 80-minute performance will not be good enough against the Kiwis.
New Zealand’s Strengths
New Zealand’s biggest strength is its front row. Intimidation is the name of the game with starting middlemen Martin Taupau and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, and bench enforcers Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Russell Packer.
Packer, in particular, offers one of the game’s quickest play-the-balls, rarely failing to land on his front when tackled. Skipper and lock Adam Blair also plays like a third front-rower and offers a lot of mongrel with his “take-no-prisoners” attitude in both attack and defence.
That said, there are danger men throughout this Kiwi team. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be a handful from the back, and the likes of Jordan Rapana with his agility, and Brad Takairangi with his power will be hard to stop coming out of trouble.
Like New Zealand, Tonga’s biggest strength is in the middle of the park. To me, that is what makes this match such an exciting prospect. The battle of the forward packs, just like in the NZ vs Samoa and Tonga vs Samoa matches, will be explosive.
The entire Tongan forward pack, including the bench, is absolutely oozing with class, with every player in the starting pack having played for either Australia or New Zealand at some point.
New Zealand’s Weaknesses
There are two of David Kidwell’s selections that I have an issue with. For starters, I would have retained Jason Nightingale from the Scotland game at the expense of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak. In my opinion, there could not be two more different wingers.
Nightingale is the epitome of professionalism. Errors in his game are few and far between to say the very least. Although his speed has diminished significantly over time, every other aspect of his game is as good as it’s ever been (I say this as a Dragons supporter who watches him play every week). He never drops bombs, he scores plenty of tries and he rarely makes errors in defence. The ultimate professional.
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, in stark contrast, has had plenty of errors in his game recently. This was evident against Samoa, and during the NRL Finals while he was playing for the Panthers. Both Nightingale and Peta Hiku would have been better options than DWZ.
With that in mind, Tonga need to send plenty of traffic down DWZ’s left wing as he is clearly the biggest defensive weakness in the Kiwi backline. The Tongans could also do a lot worse than bombing the hell out of his wing – especially from 50-30m out from the try line.
The other selection I have a slight issue with is Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. He has been a great player for the Roosters for many years. But I feel he has never stepped up for the Kiwis – not against quality opposition anyway. Having said that, there is no one in the Kiwi squad I would replace him with. He’s very fortunate that Jesse Bromwich and Jason Taumalolo are unavailable. If they were, I sincerely doubt he would be in the team at all. If I had to pick a weakness in the Kiwi pack, it would be him.
Konrad Hurrell is one of the most destructive centres in the game at his best. But he has many errors in his game, both in defence and attack, and can often be a liability to his team.
After being dropped last week following a poor showing against Scotland, Hurrell finds his way back in the team due to an injury to Solomone Kata. Fortunately for Tonga, his effort against the Scots didn’t really cost his team, but making the same errors against quality opposition like the Kiwis could cost Tonga dearly in this game. New Zealand would do well to target Hurrel’s side of the field relentlessly.
I’m also skeptical about the ability of Tongan Halves Ata Hingano and Tui Lolohea to be composed and make the right decisions during the clutch moments of the game. Don’t get me wrong – they’ve been mighty impressive so far. But New Zealand won’t give them the opportunities that Samoa and Scotland did.
For Tonga to win this game, it will have to come from a good old-fashioned forward ambush. Big charges up the middle, quick play-the-balls, good decisions and pristine execution from the halves will exert plenty of pressure on the Kiwis early and get them on the back foot.
For the Kiwis to win, all they need to do is match it with the Tongan forwards. That’s obviously easier said than done, but it’s far from an impossible task as the Kiwis, like Tonga, have a monstrous forward pack.
If the Kiwis can get Tonga into an arm wrestle, they should win off the back of the class they possess in the halves. They are deserved favourites, and I don’t think they will make the mistake of underestimating the Tongans.
I can see this match being close for 60-65 minutes before New Zealand run away with it a bit (similar to how Australia vs England matches often go). The last 15-20 minutes will be key because if Tonga can match it with the Kiwis for the first hour or so, they may be in with a chance at the end because the Kiwis are hardly known for 80-minute performances against quality opposition. If they take their foot off the gas at any point in this match, Tonga will make them pay.
New Zealand by 14