Having turned to Immortal Andrew Johns for guidance, Tonga have a point to prove in their rugby league Test match against Samoa as they shift their gaze towards next year’s World Cup.
Despite being one of the most competitive nations in the Pacific, Mate Ma’a Tonga go into Saturday’s clash with Toa Samoa ranked just 16th in the world, behind minnows Russia, Serbia and Canada.
Having missed out on a place in the 2013 World Cup quarter finals by just four points – pipped for top spot in Group C by Scotland on points differential – they have been a competitive force ever since.
World No.4 Samoa go into the Parramatta Stadium game boasting a strong backline that includes NRL premiership winners Antonio Winterstein and Kirisome Auva’a and led up front by twin wrecking balls Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard, with Pritchard having returned from the English Super League for the one-off game.
But Tonga have kept pace with them in recent years, smashing them 36-4 in 2013 and going down 18-16 in last year’s Pacific Test.
Tongan coach Kristian Wolf will be eyeing it as an opportunity to climb up the rankings and instil a winning culture ahead of the 2017 World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
He brought in Johns as a mentor after assistant coach David Tangata-Toa reached out to him and the NSW and Newcastle great said he wanted to contribute to the growth of rugby league amongst the smaller nations.
“I see how proud they are to play for their nation and I think it’s great for the game,” Johns said.
“You see the war dance and the passion with which they sing the anthem. You see the Samoan and the Tongan guys crying and see what it means to them and their family. I think it’s really cool.”
STATS THAT MATTER
* Samoa’s Erin Clark is the only player in either side without NRL experience.
* Eleven of Samoa’s starting 13 have played NRL this year, with Frank Pritchard, who is in England with Super League side Hull FC, and Cronulla’s Fa’amanu Brown the only exception.
* These two sides have played 13 times since 1988 with Samoa winning seven, Tonga having five victories and one draw.
Source: Fox Sports Stats