Mate Ma’a Tonga is making a big move for Saturday’s matchup against the Kiwis, with nine uncapped players to be fielded. Most of the team have played no more than one game for Tonga, with big names such as Andrew Fifita and Tevita Pangai Jnr watching from the side-line while Joe Ofahengaue sits in reserve.
The line-up is young with three teenagers in the mix, 19-year-olds Will Penisini, and Toluta’u Koula, along with 18-year-old reserve Isaiya Katoa. Despite the inexperience, Mate Ma’a Tonga Coach Dean Young said the players are being well prepped by the leading members of the team.
“You know the leaders have been great this week, they’ve been driving the sand of training”, Young said at a press coference in Otahuhu.
“We’ll have nine blokes who will be making their debut for Tonga, and one thing I got to witness in 2019 is how much it means to play for Tonga so those nine guys who make their debut on Saturday will be ready to go and I’m excited.”
Young is also making his debut as coach of Mate Ma’a Tonga with regular coach Kristian Woolf along with veteran players Konrad Hurrell, Will Hopoate, and Tuimoala Lolohea, unavailable due to commitments to their Super League Clubs in England.
“I’ve been on the phone regularly for weeks on end now. We talk most days and I give him an update on how training is going and keeping up the certain standards of what it means to play for Tonga”.
“It’s a really strong team and one of the stronger ones I’ve ever been a part of. It’s about getting the combinations right during the week and making sure our team is ready to go on Saturday and one we’re looking forward to,”said Taukeiaho.
“Some players are still over in England and some in the State of Origin, so if we get them all back, we’ve got a chance to win the world cup.”
“The whole week has been about building combinations because we only have one back from 2019”, said Maguire.
“All the team is aware that there are spots up for the world cup, so that’s an added motivation.”
Fan expectations are high for both teams who haven’t played a game since 2019 due to Covid disruptions.
In their last two matches, Mate Ma’a Tonga pulled off two huge upsets against Australia and Great Britain but was defeated convincingly 34 – 14 by the Kiwis at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland.