2017 RLWC Semifinal #2: ENGvTON Not the Match-up Many Predicted

Tonga Captain's Run
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It’s okay. You can say it. You never presumed it would be Tonga facing up to England in the 2017 RLWC (Rugby League World Cup) semifinals. Many will have imagined another side, but the Tongan side have come a long, long way. ENGvTON is going to be one that fans now, will watch with much interest.

England will not feel the weight of expectation any more, or any less. James Graham spoke freely that his team would treat meeting the Tongan team in very much the same approach as they might have, if it was New Zealand. His team were confident they would meet the challenge which Tonga will provide.

2017 RLWC Semifinal #2

After the Australia v Fiji match, the focus will shift to Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland.

Auckland, the home to the largest Polynesian population in the Southern Hemisphere may not apparently be daunting to Graham. But in reality, the crowd will be a daunting prospect.

(A) – Tonga have parochial support. A type which borders on fanatical, but when in the context of a Rugby League World Cup, is going to be of benefit

(B) – Not fancied as a strong contender, the side has created a positive team culture, with success greeted with a humble balance. Not over confident, the Island boys are taking every opportunity

The two factors might very well be seen as positives, although the only missing point being ‘experience’. Of which Tonga have very little. International rugby league offers them few chances to play the Tier One nations, so that might very well be the biggest obstacle on Saturday night.

But International league has had a huge injection of talent, after decisions covering eligibility rules were altered. Parentage and residence meant some Tier Two nations recruited high profile players. Jason Taumalolo (see main picture) one who could be a large factor in ENGvTON, after defecting from New Zealand just prior to teams being named.

ENGvTON Not the Match-up Many Predicted

Even as few would have predicted the Tongan side to progress this far, it is a reality. Unbeaten, the Kristian Woolf coached side is performing. From their setpiece, to miraculous offloads and a quality kick-return, the offense is working for them.

Defeating New Zealand, in a monumental comeback victory had their fans on their feet. However, last weekend they struggled to put away Lebanon. Edge of the seat stuff, that could have been a ‘reality check’ which should bring more clarity for the Mate Ma’a.

England Rugby League Due a Major Championship

If the demise of New Zealand could have any type of silver lining, it might just play into the hands for English rugby league.

The Lion has not roared in some time. It has been 45 years since an English side has raised the World Cup–enough time for two generations of players to have come, and past, without that honour. For a proud nation, that is long enough to wait.

With a leader such as Wayne Bennett directing the side, that goal is only one step away. Complete this weekend’s semifinal, and his coaching groups aspirations become a little bit closer. That includes former NRL player Denis Betts (below) who ran off many meters at Mt Smart Stadium himself.

With good motivation, England are not dreaming either. The Super League in the UK is decidedly stronger than many would assume. The mix of rugged, tough players, with a good percentage of handy ball players gives the side depth. Add to that the experience across both professional competitions, and International football, then the English Lions may very have the ammunition available to halt the Polynesian storm.

However, don’t discount the experience of Sika Manu, the Tongan captain. His years in the Super League will count too. Players take inspiration from players like him, and big Manu Vatuvai–now representing Mate Ma’a, after a long period wearing Kiwi black and white. If they get the players inspired, and the crowd roars proudly, it might be the magic formula to carry on the dream of Tonga.

Which Team Will Handle the Pressure?

Like in the Australia v Fiji clash, there is pressure. It will be on the 26 players, the inter-change bench players, and coaching staff. Given the four games played, combinations must have been developed to this point. Both teams starting line-ups will be their finest–barring injury for Tonga.

David Fusitu’a suffered an injury at training, and while Tonga have chosen the playmaker, they must hope he stands up to the riggers of a semifinal. On the flipside, the news that Sam Burgess should make his return is a huge boost for England.

The match-ups over the 26 men on the field, makes for good viewing. If the big hits don’t excite fans enough, counter-attack will be a weapon. Knocking the ball free may see some long attempts at the tryline. England fullback Gareth Widdop may find himself the last line of defence, so communication on the field will be crucial–but with 30,000 screaming fans, the atmosphere could make it difficult to organize his centers and wings.

Neither are regulars in World Cup finals to be truthful. England have often been stopped short, so each can hold dreams of reaching a Final. Yes,¬†ENGvTON is balanced slightly towards England, but with such large support Tonga have every right to say “we deserve to be here”.

The final squads are below:

2017 RLWC Semifinal #2: England Lions v Mate Ma’a Tonga

Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland

“Main photo credit”
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