'Three or four years in the making': Kiwis dominate Tonga in return test
New Zealand have returned to international rugby league action in fine style, downing Tonga 26-6.
A capacity 27,000 crowd jammed themselves into Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium to watch one of the most-anticipated league match-ups of the year.
But given the vast majority were from New Zealand’s huge Tongan community, they would have been disappointed as the Kiwis raced to a 12-0 lead after only seven minutes.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire was a happy man at fulltime, describing the performance as “really impressive”.
“This has been three or four years in the making, I know we’ve had a two-year break but to see the boys walk straight back in and take control … they were able to be very strong.”
First Jahrome Hughes bundled his way over from close to the line, before Jordan Rapana finished off a long-range move to dive in under the posts.
To their credit, the Tongans took the only real opportunity in the half, with Sione Katoa crossing in the corner after some lovely build-up work by Viliami Penisini.
But that simply inspired the Kiwis to slam the door shut, with aggressive defence by the middle forwards barely allowing the Tongans out of their half.
Captain Jesse Bromwich said he wasn’t surprised at the fast start.
“We went out there with a game plan and wanted to put a lot of energy in our defence. We put a lot of pressure on early, keep building and we ran away with it.”
The break saw the Kiwis take a commanding 20-6 lead after Rapana kicked a penalty goal before Dylan Brown floated a beautiful ball out wide for Ronaldo Mulitalo to score the try of the match.
Both debutants had solid games, but the real standouts were Jesse Bromwich and Joseph Manu, who dictated play on both attack and defence.
By the time Isiah Papali’I stretched out to score in the 62nd minute, the game was already won, but the Kiwis kept pressing their advantage right until the end.
Despite the unusually flat Tongan performance, the crowd was in full voice throughout, with Mt Smart once again becoming a sea of red Tongan flags.
That really was the only highlight from their perspective, with stars like Jason Taumalolo and Addin Fonua-Blake well contained.
Kotoni Staggs and Talatau Amone had a hard time getting anything going in the halves, with Tonga unable to force even one goal-line drop-out.
Fullback Joseph Manu’s 398 running metres was a statistical highlight of the match, but Maguire was quick to praise the efforts of the entire side.
“Across the park, the forwards laid a really strong foundation. (The Tongans) are not a small team, they’re coming at you hard into contact.
“All of the players aimed up for each other … and I know there’s a lot we can improve on, so I’m really looking forward to the World Cup.”
Bromwich reflected on the past two years of inaction in Test rugby league, saying it was a real honour to play in the first game back in New Zealand.
“Obviously a lot of us haven’t been able to come home in the last two years. But to come out to that atmosphere, there’s nothing quite like it,” he said.
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