International rugby league at its finest.
A tearful Benji Marshall returned to the Kiwi jersey, starring in an attacking masterclass alongside Shaun Johnson to help New Zealand hammer rivals Tonga in an emotion-powered showdown at Mt. Smart Stadium.
While it was a battle that once again signified a rivalry that epitomises just how far the international game has come in recent years, nothing stood out more than the tears that streamed down Marshall’s face during ‘God Defend New Zealand’.
After a seven-year hiatus from international footy, the 37-year-old was rewarded for his steady club form with a test recall, and the size of the occasion was more than evident.
Marshall played his role perfectly, but it was Johnson’s hat-trick that lit up the Kiwis, who despite being tested throughout the game were a class above the Tongans with the ball in hand.
Johnson crossed for two vintage tries down the right-hand side in the first half, before claiming a loose ball inside Tonga’s in-goal to complete his hat-trick and a successful return to Mt. Smart Stadium, a ground where he made a name for himself playing for the Warriors.
Equally impressive was dynamic hooker Brandon Smith, who crossed for four-pointer to accompany his 97 run metres and 37 tackles.
The enigmatic Storm junior opened the scoring for the Kiwis off a Damien Cook-like dart from dummy half, splitting the Tongans open from 30 metres out and muscling his way over under the posts.
The game was in the balance once Tonga responded through Solomone Kata in the 22nd minute, after the Warrior snatched up a vintage tap back pass off Daniel Tupou, following a pinpoint cross field kick from John Asiata.
That was where the Kiwis shifted up a gear however, with Marshall and Johnson combining twice down the right side to break open the Tongans and open up a commanding 16-4 lead at the break.
In the second half Jahrome Hughes and Joseph Manu both barged their way over to advance the Kiwis’ lead out to 30 points.
The Tongans continued to fight however, and in the 73rd minute returned to the scoreboard after Jason Taumalolo turned halfback and threw a stunning no look pass to a steamrolling Siosiua Taukiaho, who strolled through a huge gap.
A last ditch effort from Daniel Tupou in the corner shortly after helped the Tongans to their third, but all it did was soften the blow from what was a resounding and dominant performance from a powerful New Zealand side.