International Rugby League Tests Previews & Betting Tips

Tonga created rugby league history when they beat the Kiwis in the 2017 World Cup – but can they do it again?

James Baxter
Thu, 20 Jun, 12:00 AM

Tonga created rugby league history when they beat the Kiwis in the 2017 World Cup – but can they do it again?

It’s Robbie Farah’s last hurrah for Lebanon as the fledgling Cedars look to stun the fancied Fijians.

Samoa are huge favourites to thump Papua New Guinea – how will they handle the pressure against the proud Kumuls?

New Zealand v Tonga – Mt Smart Stadium 3:30pm

Following a disastrous 2017 Rugby League World Cup campaign, wily coach Michael Maguire has been rebuilding New Zealand and will have high expectations for his strong Kiwis squad on Saturday. Maguire was adamant on keeping his New Zealand role when he took over the Tigers and he’d know better than anyone else on how to get the best out of the Kiwis’ spiritual leader Benji Marshall.

With Kodi Nikorima out with injury, Marshall is expected to get the nod to pair Shaun Johnson in the halves ahead of Kieran Foran. It’s Marshall veteran presence which could provide the glue to hold the Kiwis together. There’s class throughout the backline including reigning Dally M Medallist Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Rooster sensation Joseph Manu and winger Ken Maumalo who is in career-best form for the Warriors.

It’s in the forwards though where this test will be won – can the Bromwich brothers, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and company hold off the Jason Taumalolo-inspired Tongan pack? Maguire’s 2-3 record since taking over doesn’t do the Kiwis’ recent improvement justice. They’ve beaten Australia at this venue and took England to the limit in last year’s three test series away, destroying them 34-0 in the dead rubber.

The rise of Islander nations has been brilliant for the international game but the Kiwis will feel it’s come at their expense – look for them to remind the league world of their credentials in front of a packed Auckland crowd.

Tonga meanwhile have experienced perhaps the most remarkable two year turnaround in international rugby league history. Their memorable 26-24 win over Samoa in May 2017 was a turning point in the sport, acting as a catalyst to persuade the likes of superstars Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Sio Taukeiaho and more to shun the game’s traditional powerhouse nations to instead Tonga.

The Tongan forward pack depth is now among the best in rugby league – in addition to the above three stars, they’ve got enforcers like Manu Ma’u, Tevita Pangai Junior, Addin Fonua-Blake and emerging talent including Manase Fainu and Sitili Tupouniua who have the confidence to turn a game on its head in a quick burst.

Their backs are similarly impressive, Daniel Tupou wouldn’t have looked out of place for New South Wales for example but instead will look to shine for the Tongans with proven tryscorers Solomone Kata, David Fusitu’a and Will Hopoate for company. The biggest problem for Tonga has been the lack of established specialist halves but they’ve at least got the experience of Tui Lolohea and John Asiata who each have played in the halves for Leeds and North Queensland respectively this season.

The Tongans’ secret weapon though is coach Kristian Woolf, who has been at the helm since 2014 and has played a vital role in pushing for more tests and funds for emerging league nations. His players adore his coaching style and Woolf knows how to maximise a condensed match preparation – the Tongans will be ready for this battle.

Key stats: The last time New Zealand lost in Auckland was 2006. In their last start there they beat Australia 26-24 in 2018. In the Kiwis’ five matches under coach Maguire they’ve only trailed at halftime once. Ken Maumalo has four tries in his last four tests.

Tip: New Zealand

Best bet: New Zealand -2 - $1.83* (Bet365)

Value bet: Ken Maumalo anytime tryscorer - $2* (TAB)

Fiji v Lebanon – Leichhardt Oval 5:30pm

Fiji are known for their all-out attacking style and will be ready to put on a show against Lebanon. The Bati are have a stacked backline highlighted by Storm try-scoring machine Suliasi Vunivalu, plus NRL regulars like Maika Sivo, Marcelo Montoya and Mikaele Ravalawa.

Keep an eye out for Ta’ane Milne too, the centre has struggled to mark his mark at NRL level through ill-discipline but his talent is unquestioned and a strong showing will help the Warrior lower-grader push his case for a return to top grade.

The Fijians also boast a formidable pack with Korbin Sims their leader. The Dragons firebrand would have been joined by brother Tariq were it not for his Origin selection. Panther backrower Viliame Kikau will be a fan favourite on one edge with the Sharks’ Jayson Bukuya on the other.

Fiji enjoyed a successful 2017 World Cup, reaching the semi finals by eliminating New Zealand, however there are plenty of new faces this time around and eager to prove their selection worth with the next World Cup getting closer.

Lebanon meanwhile are experiencing dysfunction on and off the pitch. An increasingly ugly dispute within the Lebanese Rugby League Federation has seen their domestic competition ground to a halt after their joyful run to the World Cup quarter final.

The infighting has gotten to the point where the side’s spiritual leader Robbie Farah has made assurances there will be no boycott in protest – instead they’ll tape over the Federation’s logo on the jersey. The chaos has found its way into the selection too – the likes of Mitchell Moses, Alex Twal, Adam Doueihi and Josh Mansour would be key members but for various reasons are now unavailable.

This led to a Farah public spray of these senior players as being “disappointing.” It’s hardly a recipe for success and despite the fanatical support they’ll enjoy, it might make for a long afternoon. There’s a sprinkling of current and former NRL talent who have committed alongside Farah, including Tim Mannah, Michael Lichaa, Abbas Miskie and Reece Robinson but their squad on paper is far weaker than either their 2017 version or the Fijians.

Key stats: Fiji have won eight of their last eleven tests. Lebanon have not played since the 2017 World Cup where they lost their last three matches.

Tip: Fiji

Samoa v Papua New Guinea – Leichhardt Oval 7:50pm

While their fierce rivals Tonga have catapulted into a powerhouse, Samoa themselves are undergoing an impressive roster transformation and will have a chance to show they can handle high expectations against Papua New Guinea.

The Samoans are loaded with talent with the star attraction their skipper Anthony Milford. The Broncos playmaker takes immense pride leading Samoa and is the cornerstone of their side. He’s hardly a lone hand however – there’s plenty of talent in the backs including Jamayne Isaako, David Nofoaluma, Hymel Hunt and Jorge Taufua.

While the Tongans may lack specialist halves, Samoa coach Matt Parish has three to choose from (excluding Milford who’s traditionally played at fullback) in Mason Lino, Chanel Harris-Tavita and Jarome Luai. Their forwards also have plenty of muscle. Martin Taupau’s decision to represent Samoa ahead of New Zealand is monumental and delivers the Samoans one of NRL’s best enforcers.

“Kapow” will get support from Newcastle staples James Gavet and Herman Ese’ese plus Junior Paulo and Josh Aloiai through the middle, while Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Michael Chee Kam and Jaydn Su’a will thrive on the edges.  Samoan rugby league has never been healthier and a big win over PNG will be expected to kickstart their charge towards the next World Cup.

Papua New Guinea will enter this Pacific clash as rank outsiders but with enough talent to not be written off. The Kumuls have always been greater than the sum of their parts and the creation – and success – in Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup of the PNG Hunters has been a huge success for their pathways.

The challenge has been bridging the gap between this level of competition with NRL or English Super League talent. Whilst Samoa and Tonga now find themselves selecting squads solely of these elite competitions, PNG remain a mix of fringe NRL players combined with Intrust Super Cup and NSW Canterbury Cup members.

Pressure will rest on the shoulders of Brisbane’s James Segeyaro to guide the side – with Kurt Baptiste ready to assist him – while there is exciting young halves talent in the Roosters’ Lachlan Lam and Cowboys’ Kyle Laybutt. Rhyse Martin is the most notable Kumuls forward but keep an eye out for Luke Page – formerly of Gold Coast, Stanton Albert – an outstanding Hunters prop – and everyone’s favourite candidate for the greatest name in rugby league of Moses Meninga, who is a workhorse edge forward.

There’s no external pressure on Papua New Guinea which may be the best case scenario for a side rebuilding for the 2021 World Cup. A competitive showing will deliver high confidence they’re on the right track after an impressive showing last time around.

Key stats: Samoa are desperate for the win – they haven’t won a test in their last seven. PNG have won three of their last four tests in Australia. Jorge Taufua has four tries in five international tests, while Michael Chee Kam has four tries in his last ten NRL matches.

Tip: Samoa

Best bet: Jorge Taufua anytime tryscorer - $1.72* (Sportsbet)

Value bet: Michael Chee Kam anytime tryscorer - $3.60* (Sportsbet)

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