Beginning their representative season, the large ‘Cricket scoreline’ in the All Blacks v Tonga International Test match has created more dialogue on the disparity which Pacific Islands nations still endure.
With every effort made by the Tongan side to their credit, they could not withstand the barrage handed down by the New Zealand All Blacks team. Opening with a flood of early tries, the weight of facing the three-time Rugby World Cup winners was in the end, all too much. 102-0 is not reflective of the heart and collective talent who wore the red jersey against an all-black one, yet it highlights the major differences in teams as well as the unbalanced nature of some International Test fixtures.
The players all showed the same pride in their jersey and shed tears when the national anthem was played. Whether they were new players to International rugby or seasoned veterans like Nasi Manu, every one of the Tongan boys put everything into the match.
The clashing war dance was the perfect Pacifica opening act of a game that for most, was in fact highly emotional and the match was authentically entertaining to watch. Tries were scored, passes and tackles made, kicks for and against completed. Although one set of supporters might have wanted their men to enjoy some of the scoring too, unfortunately on this night, Tonga could not break the Kiwi line.
New Zealand was just too powerful and too polished.
WATCH | Catch up on all the try-scoring action from the All Blacks first Test of 2021 against Tonga.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) July 4, 2021
So, was it a fair representation? How could Tonga expect to match the best that New Zealand rugby could muster? And with the news that some Tongan debutant’s had been drawn from Club Rugby level, then the cricket-like scoreline must have been the expectation.
But, no team goes out to face another who is to such a larger degree better….do they?
Cricket scoreline in All Blacks v Tonga International Test match
It seems that the legacy from Saturday night’s All Blacks v Tonga test is two-fold. On the one hand, Pacifica Rugby is being recognized, being rightfully respected as a worthy opponent. They had the global platform to perform on, to gain experience at this International level, to compare their talent against that of New Zealand.
After years of asking for it, this match appeared to be what the calls for more matches had asked for. Maybe a tough one, but one that Tonga would accept willfully.
It was a challenge accepted, just in the way that the Tongan players lined up and performed the Sipi Tau. The traditional war dance which the side uses similarly to the All Blacks haka before a match was executed with intensity. So in essence, the challenge was used as motivation for the inexperienced group.
It is just that the output and the ability to co-ordinate their set-piece and open play was on a level of Club rugby, or at a provincial rugby level. It was not at the highest International level that their hosts were used to; as registered by the cricket scoreline, as much as in the possession and territory statistics.
With 66% of the first half ball, the All Blacks were able to dominate from counterattack and planned moves. That became more even in the second half, with the extra meters run in attack beginning to count o the home players. Substitutions can also bring a more even playing field though Tonga still had to compete for 80 minutes, and that should be celebrated. They never looked to give up.
Credit to head coach Toutai Kefu and his group who needed to act early when star International names were absent or those who chose to not endure the combined isolation weeks meant an SOS was sent out for locally-based players. Thus the reason for so many new names who had zero or very little experience at this level.
Was it a fair match, and which side benefitted most?
Fair yes, although in an unfair comparison. Every one of the New Zealand players has played a full Super Rugby season. Paid professionals all, they have the luxury of being on home soil and with all the creature comforts of accommodation and gear.
Fairness can only be set by an even playing field. If not all the Tongan players are paid professionals, then at that starting point it must be challenged. While not a unique perspective, as for decades the disparity between Tier One and Tier Two nations has existed. Pacific Islands men and women will not always have contracts that support them like their Kiwi rivals. So work will always be the difference between the two sides. And Kefu had to draw on a larger number of debuting players than Ian Foster would never have to face [by choice].
Some of the 2019 Tongan Rugby World Cup squad were unavailable due to the restrictions on travel and where they currently live and work. Even the management had problems coming to New Zealand, so it affected the whole organization as much as the squad. They were not on the same standing and that has called the fixture into question.
Fair or not, the lack of available time to train together contributed to the polar opposite scorelines. The All Blacks v Tonga match saw 16 tries scored – all of them by the hosts though. That inequity is where the Pacific Nation will indirectly benefit from but, it is a collateral loss on the score sheet.
Benefits will be for the Tongan player’s who continue to represent their country. Those who go on to play against Samoa in the RWC qualification matches scheduled next week will find benefits immediately. They will know the pressure of meeting the All Blacks, how the feeling of playing better opposition means you have to draw on your learnings to improve individual skills sets.
As a collective though, the day after will feel like a freight train hit them. So mentally (as well as physically) the way the team and each individual can compartmentalize the experience into positives and negatives, is critical. Going away and ‘hating yourself’ must be avoided. A common feeling yet the Tongan management need to see the players together; possibly in a pre-Church attendance meeting. Then, individuals and small groups should try to bond and look for the positives over the day.
New Zealand used match as ‘light start’ to 15 match season
With 15 matches scheduled, the 2021 International season is only going to get harder from here. So selecting a ‘light start’ is how some note this game. Italy would have also felt like a more comfortable start than say Australia v France. That is a tough ask – one that Les Bleus could well hold the balance of favouritism. So Tonga are certainly not like meeting France.
Benefits will come from playing together of course, no matter the opposition. If like Tonga, the players had not assembled for close to a fortnight, then that side could have made a better representation of their collective. And for New Zealand, they are 15 individuals who combined are the better of most sides.
Benefits from the game are in combinations; even while some starters may not be used in that same role again this season. The rested All Blacks will be reintegrated. Rested, and prepared to take on Fiji. Another challenge on a measured level. Like Tonga, with some missing so it will too be a team that should not pressure New Zealand.
One obstacle to the next two games is mediocrity. Where the expectation exceeds the effort – the All Blacks usually try so hard, it can often fall flat. Fans feel they have not been supplied the ‘expected product’ and not many sides are familiar with that idol worship. Ian Foster is also not familiar with that, and while his goal for this year is to regain the number one world ranking, how the team plays – what style, what level of attack or aggression they utilize – is the one unknown.
First step was Tonga. Accomplished, 102-0. Not seen as the bright beginning NZ Rugby administrators would have planned for though. Because the outcome was forecast, it’s a Catch 22 – for all the gains, some see the result negatively while others look for improvement.
But in the end, rugby is about development. Each of the two sides interprets that differently though. New Zealand being so introspective, any result draws its own conversation. Yet if Pacifica Rugby is the main focus, then there were winners on both sides of the field. And that is a good result out of such a one-sided outcome.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images