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Can the darlings of 2017 strike again?




Tonga enter this World Cup in a position of extreme strength. You can pick the vast majority of their team now, they’ve had a mid-season hit-out and – unlike island brothers/eternal rivals Samoa – they aren’t dependant on a heap of Origin players coming back to them for the World Cup.

Mate Ma’a Tonga were the surprise package of World Cup 2017, but will surprise nobody in 2022. They go in as a clear threat to win the whole thing.

Since Jason Taumalolo declared his allegiance to his heritage over the country of his birth, New Zealand, international rugby league has been transformed. That transformation enters its next stage in 2022, because not they have the weight of expectation to go with the talent.

With a group that includes a tough PNG, they should at least get to the knockouts, and from there, nobody will fancy facing them. It’s game on for Tonga.

Certainties

Tonga have a very settled side. From the 17 that lost to New Zealand in June, they lose Sione Katoa, who injured a knee playing for Cronulla, but gain a Daniel Tupou from the Origin set-up. Felise Kaufusi also joins after missing the mid-season game.

Manly provide two of the backs, Christian Tuipulotu and Tolu Koula, who plays in the centres at club level but is likely to move to his junior grade position of fullback, just like he did against the Kiwis. His competition at the back will be Tesi Niu.

Tonga have long missed a genuine halfback, and it is likely that they will turn to Tui Lolohea to fill that role. He’s been on fire for Huddersfield in the Super League. He generally plays as a pivot, but will be shifted into half to allow Junior Amone to play the five-eighth role.

That will push Kotoni Staggs to his more customary centre spot. The other centre will be Will Penisini.

In the forwards, Addin Fonua-Blake will be join by Siosiua Taukeiaho in the front row, with sipi tau leader Siliva Havili the most likely man to go between them. Tevita Tatola and Moaeki Fotuaika will rotate, though the latter might be replaced by Joe Ofahengaue given his less than stellar club form.

The back row option are insane: Taumalolo and Kaufusi, of course, but also Haumole Olakau’atu, Keaon Koloamatangi and Siosifa Talakai, back from Origin duty.

Haumole Olakau’atu. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Probables 

Moses Suli will be a walk-up if fit, but has been suffering from an ankle injury. Sitili Tuiponiua played in midseason, but has subsequently torn an ACL and will open up a spot that Tevita Pangai jnr will probably take.

Soni Luke is not a regular first-grader with Penrith but hookers are thin on the ground for Tonga and he’ll make the squad. The same could be said for Panthers junior Isaiya Katoa, because there aren’t that many Tongan halfbacks running around.

Will Hopoate has been battling injuries all year with St Helens, but plays under Woolf every week and will offer crucial utility value.

Possibles

Andrew Fifita was part of the original wave of heritage players to flip to Mate Ma’a Tonga, and if he keeps up his late season form for Cronulla, he could find himself on the plane. Other front-rowers include Oregon Kaufusi, Hame Sele and Taniela Paseka will all be likely to miss out given how many options Tonga have.

Tyson Frizell is holding out hopes for Australia, and is in the unusual position of having three options: if the Kangaroos say no, Tonga might say yes. If they don’t, he could go back to Wales, where he started his international career.

Stefano Utoikamanu is an outside chance, but there’s a lot of back-row talent to go around. Assuming he doesn’t get picked for Australia, David Fifita is also eligible and might get the call, though they might not need him.

The lack of halves depth brings names from the UK like Ata Hingano and John Asiata into the mix, if Woolf prefers specialists over NRL talent played out of position. If you fancy a laugh, Woolf also has Konrad Hurrell on the books at Saints. That would be fun.

Predicted Tonga squad

1 Tesi Niu
2 Christian Tuipulotu
3 Will Penisini
4 Kotoni Staggs
5 Daniel Tupou
6 Junior Amone
7 Tui Lolohea
8 Siosiua Taukeiaho
9 Siliva Havili
10 Addin Fonua-Blake
11 Keaon Koloamatangi
12 Felise Kaufusi
13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Soni Luke
15 Tevita Tatola
16 Moeaki Fotuaika
17 Haumole Olakau’atu
18 Joe Ofahengaue
19 Tolu Koula
20 Tevita Pangai jnr
21 David Fifita
22 Siosifa Talakai
23 Isaiya Katoa
24 William Hopoate





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