As we enter Week 2 of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, one game in particular jumps out at me as the obvious gem among this week’s contests.
This match promises to be both an entertaining and brutal affair. And if history is anything to go by, it will go down to the wire.
Based on form and results in the previous round, Tonga will go into this one as deserved favourites. However, Samoa will have plenty of belief that they can turn it on and claim victory against their more-fancied opponents.
Both players will be key to getting Samoa on the front foot early in their sets of six. They very rarely get taken down first time, and they both accrue tackle busts and post-contact metres like they’re going out of fashion.
Samoa’s other big strength lies in the forwards. Starting middle-men Junior Paulo, Herman Ese’ese and Leeson Ah Mau are all dead set metre eaters, while back-rowers Frank Pritchard and Josh Papalii are both great at targeting opposition halves on the edges.
I think every forward pack in this tournament will struggle to stop the onslaught of Andrew Fifita, Jason Taumalolo and co. The Samoan pack will be no different. The battle of the forwards will be interesting and full of ferocious collisions – but it’s a battle that I expect the Tongans to win.
Behind a beaten forward pack, Samoa’s halves will not have very much space to operate in, and will likely struggle to have an impact on the game.
At halfback is Ata Hingano. At just 20 years of age and with 15 NRL games under his belt, he shows a lot of promise. But he is also very inexperienced, and this could count against him in the clutch moments when a halfback is expected to stand up.
Jennings is very solid in defence, but will still have his work cut out for him marking Leilua. In Jennings’ favour is that he is defending inside his former NSW and Roosters teammate Daniel Tupou. But when Leilua is on, even the very best defensive centres in the game struggle, as Shaun Kenny-Dowall found out in 2014.
On the flip side, Leilua has been known to drift in and out of games – especially in defence. If he loses concentration for even a second, Jennings will make him pay with his blinding speed.
But looking at a game on paper doesn’t take emotion into account, and this contest will have plenty of emotion, plenty of fire and plenty of spark in every collision.
The Tongan forwards need to keep their minds on the job and not get sucked into any niggling tactics that the Samoans may throw at them. Giving away too many silly ruck penalties could easily be Tonga’s undoing.
That means tiring the bigger Tongan forwards out with smart angle running, extensive ball movement and second-phase play. Think Papalii or Pritchard back on the inside. Plenty of offloads and dummy-half running from the outside backs.
Simply put, Samoa’s best chance of winning is to run the Tongan pack ragged. This will nullify the likes of Fifita and Taumalolo in attack, while giving halves Roberts and Paulo plenty of space to unleash the outside backs.
However, if I’ve learnt one thing from watching these two nations go at it on the rugby league field, it’s to expect the unexpected. There are only three guarantees in life – death, taxes, and big hits when Samoa and Tonga play each other.
This game will have plenty of passion and fire, and it will throw up plenty of drama. Look for Tonga to test Samoa’s right side defence early. Any slip ups will lead to Tongan victory.