Kiwis make triumphant return against Tonga

New Zealand's Joseph Manu tries to bust through the Tongan defence. Photo: Getty Images
New Zealand's Joseph Manu tries to bust through the Tongan defence. Photo: Getty Images
The Kiwis have showed their promise for the upcoming World Cup.

After two and a-half years, this was more than worth the wait, a welcome change from the grinding diet of NRL football.

It was another wonderful occasion at Mt Smart, with a tremendous 27,000 strong crowd, as the Kiwis outclassed a youthful Mate Ma'a Tonga outfit to win 26-6.

Despite the score line, it was an intensely competitive contest. There was the usual blood and thunder, amid collisions and hits that were probably felt in the neighbouring suburb.

But even with their much vaunted forward pack, Tonga were never able to get a foothold in the game, ground down by a ruthless Kiwi effort, with their defensive display particularly impressive Joseph Manu was a standout at fullback – involved in almost everything for New Zealand as he ran for more than 350 metres – and part of a spine that was a class above their opposites.

Halfback Jahrome Hughes was outstanding with his kicking game and running threat, while hooker Brandon Smith had yet another big match in the Black and White V.

The pack also stood up to the challenge, with James Fisher-Harris and Joseph Tapine prominent among a relentless forward effort.

The only downside for the Kiwis was their execution, with plenty of points left out there, though some rustiness was understandable off the back of just two training sessions, after the long hiatus since November 2019. But the display underlined New Zealand's potential for what is coming at the end of the year, with this Kiwis machine bound to turn plenty of heads in England.

Tonga will also take heart. They spent almost the entire match in their own half – but never wilted – shown by the effort to hold up Briton Nikora over the line in the 78th minute.

They had a green look – with nine debutants in their 17– but a typically brutal pack, led by Jason Taumalolo and Addin Fonua-Blake, though they were rarely on the front foot, while the Kiwis had four test rookies and their new look spine.

The emotion of the occasion was evident from the national anthems, especially for Smith and Kiwis debutant Marata Niukore. Peta Hiku led the haka, before Tonga replied with a passionate 90 second Sipi Tau.

The Kiwis made a perfect start, with Hughes scything over from close range in the third minute. After Manu and Smith had made incisions, Hughes found his way through four defenders with a trademark bust.

There was more four minutes later, with Rapana combining with Dylan Brown to finish off a Kenny Bromwich line break. It was electric stuff, with Tonga completely starved of possession.

But their response came from with their first opportunity, after a Jesse Bromwich error. Brilliant second phase play stretched the local defence, eventually allowing Sione Katoa to dive over in the corner, sparking massive celebrations from the massed sea of red in the stands.

Tonga had some momentum, but it didn't last, as the Kiwis continued to monopolise possession and territory. An acrobatic finish from Ronaldo Mulitalo – after a wonderful harbour bridge pass from Brown that seemed to stop in mid air – extended the Kiwis advantage, but they should have had more, especially as Christian Tuipulotu spent 10 minutes in the sin bin before halftime.

But they lacked the polish to nail some opportunities and were also denied by some magnificent defence, with Kotoni Staggs stopping both Rapana and Hiku when they looked odds on to score.

By halftime the Kiwis had enjoyed 56 percent possession, accumulating almost double the run metres of their opponents. As the rain came down, the quality dropped after halftime, with a string of handling errors from both teams. It meant the Kiwis couldn't get anything going – despite plenty of territory – with Tonga were marooned at their own end, only staying in the game through valiant tackling.

There were moments of magic – with Manu's solo break and grubber a highlight – as he continually tested the opposition defence. After a scoreless third quarter, the levee finally broke in the 64th minute, with Isaiah Papali'i crashing over off a Fisher-Harris short ball, after a precise Hughes kick forced a goal line drop out.

They should have been the cue for more, but the Kiwis couldn't find their edge, while Tonga kept their line – and pride – intact for the final 15 minutes.

Kiwis 26 (Jahrome Hughes, Jordan Rapana, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Isaiah Papali'i tries; Rapana 4 cons, pen), Tonga 6 (Sione Katoa try; Kotoni Staggs conversion). HT: 20-6.

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