The Good: Tonga are yet another example of a team who combine a brutal, explosive forward game with a crazy, all-action passing game. In Feleti Mateo and Cooper Vuna, they also have young, budding talents with the ability to break a game wide open. They also have natural attacking talent in midfield, with Mateo and Tevita Teo-Latu looking to provide openings for their powerful forwards to run into, and space out wide for their finishers to take advantage of. If Tonga click, it should be an impressive sight to behold.
The Bad: It may be a little harsh to describe the Tongan style of play as reckless, but they certainly have a cavalier attitude that can either be thrilling or frustrating. In their only warm up game for this tournament it proved to be the latter as they were torn apart by New Zealand. It will also be of concern that their defence was ripped apart by the likes of Ropati, Matai and Marshall because this group is not exactly forgiving with its attacking talent.
The Ugly: Tonga and eligibility rules don’t exactly seem to be BFF at the moment. They lost Anthony Tupou to Australia after he had already been named in the Tongan squad and had started training with them. Now they have also refused to give up on Fuifui Moimoi and Taniela Tuiaki, despite the fact that by playing for New Zealand last year they rendered themselves ineligible. You really have to wonder why Tonga didn’t put up more of a fight when the pair were selected for the Kiwis…
The Key: This group is going to be all about which side can keep their heads together when the pressure is on. It really does not seem to have helped Tonga that they have added extra pressure to themselves by fighting the RLIF’s ruling on the eligibility criteria. It will prove rather prudent if they can overcome that and concentrate on actually playing Rugby League.
The Coach: Jim Dymock was a World Cup winner as an Australian player in the 1995 Final, and had a pretty successful track record in a career that took him from Wests Magpies to London. Like many other coaches at this World Cup his day job is as an Assistant Coach in the NRL, having moved from Cronulla to the Bulldogs. With this eligibility saga threatening to turn from a headache into a full-on mess, Dymock will have to show how astute he is both on and off the field in keeping the Tongans’ eye on the ball and not in the boardroom.
Star Man: In a group where the teams seem to be lacking true quality in the middle of the park, Feleti Mateo could prove to be a real boon for the Tongans. Seemingly able to slot in anywhere, his direction and inspiration from Stand-Off might just be the influence needed for the Tongans, and he knows how to follow the ball-carrier with success. Tonga will need Mateo to be at his best and ready to take on the opposition full on.
Wild Card: To be honest, after the New Zealand game it’s probably the whole team who fit into this category. They are undoubtedly a side packed with quality players, but this eligibility thing is hanging over them like a cloud about to burst, and they seem a side that needs to get their head in the game. They need to make sure they are ready to perform, because Samoa and Ireland are unlikely to do them any favours.
Young Gun: Cooper Vuna is making a name for himself on the wing, having now established himself at the Newcastle Knights. Not afraid to take the outside channel if it’s offered to him by the defender, Vuna seems to be pretty adept at finishing tough chances. He’s also very powerful, and should he be utilised properly he will prove to be a nightmare for defensive lines both near the opposition tryline and also returning the ball from kicks.
In Conclusion… Before the New Zealand game, I would have been very confident about the chances for Mate Ma’a in this Group, but the outcome of that game has left many of their cheerleaders questioning themselves. In particular, the way that their defence was shredded apart will be worrying heading into their Group C opener against Ireland, not to mention what an offensively-minded Samoa might now be planning. However, it should also be said that New Zealand looked white-hot in that game as well, which might have made Tonga’s problems seem more glaring than they are. It’s really hard to avoid seeing this kerfuffle over Moi Moi and Tuiaki as weighing down on the Tongans, and if they free themselves from that burden one way or the other, we can hopefully see the true Tonga show up to entertain us all.