TWL KIWIS V TONGA WRAP: SMITH AND JOHNSON SPEARHEAD BIG NZ WIN

It’s a well-established fact that the ‘Ki’ was never in the ‘Wi’, as David Kidwell put it in such cringeworthy fashion, but under Michael Maguire the Kiwis are rapidly putting the horrors of 2017 in New Zealand Rugby League’s rearview.

New Zealand carved out an emphatic 34-14 victory over Mate Ma’a Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium, exacting some revenge for the watershed loss to the island nation in Hamilton less than two years ago.

Game-breakers Brandon Smith and Shaun Johnson were the headline-grabbers of the six-tries-to-three result, but the Kiwis’ magnificent defence and engine-room dominance was equally vital to the surprisingly convincing result.

Meanwhile, Benji Marshall’s return to the international arena after a seven-year hiatus is destined to live long in the memory.

The 34-year-old was in tears during the New Zealand national anthem, before passionately leading the haka.

Marshall’s influence inside the 80 minutes was equally inspirational, producing two try-assists and pair of try-saving tackles in a stellar first half.

In an impressive all-round five-eighth performance, Johnson scored two individual tries to take the game away from Tonga.

But the dynamic Smith was easily the standout player, piercing through for the first try and laying on the opening four-pointer of the second half with a similarly sensational run in a 126-metre display that had to rank with the best ever by a Kiwis No.9.

Following the almost inevitable explosive physicality of the opening exchanges, the Kiwis settled into their work far more effectively.

Hooker Brandon Smith busted the Tongan line from dummy-half and ran around fullback Will Hopoate for a sensational solo try – his second in as many Auckland Tests.

But Tonga’s offloading, backline flair and forward power were causing the hosts (?) problems. New Zealand was forced to defend five consecutive sets midway through the first half…and they cracked at the tailend of the last of those.

Tonga debutant John Asiata’s pinpoint cross-field kick was brilliantly tapped back by Sydney Roosters beanpole Daniel Tupou for Warriors reserve-grader Solomone Kata – headed for a mid-season shift to Melbourne by all accounts – to dot down.

Showing few signs of being rattled, the Kiwis regained the ascendancy through a flash of Shaun Johnson magic.

The maligned ex-Warrior dummied his way in-between Tevita Pangai Jr and Asiata to score a sizzling solo try.

New Zealand was in command with a 12-4 lead but landed a hammer blow seconds out from the break – in identical circumstances.

Johnson’s guile and pace carried him through Tonga’s goal-line defence again as his dream Mt Smart homecoming mushroomed with a 13th Test try.

Tonga’s hopes of staging a repeat of their World Cup second-half revival copped a major dent via Smith’s unbelievable running game.

The Waiheke Island product beat another slew of defenders and his deft kick ahead proved too tough for Tevita Tatola to clean up. After some initial confusion, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was credited with the try after the Bunker had awarded Johnson his hat-trick.

Tonga enjoyed a welter of possession in New Zealand territory in the ensuing 10 minutes. But the Kiwis’ defensive desperation and Tonga’s lack of a genuine linchpin kept the scoreline at 22-4.

Smith received a well-earned break but there was no dummy-half respite for Tonga. Jahrome Hughes – who scored a double against the Warriors at Mt Smart only a fortnight ago – replicated his Melbourne teammate by scoring a try on Kiwis debut.

Hughes’ zip exposed some lacklustre Tonga defence was a disappointingly easy four-pointer.

The Kiwis crossed for their sixth try in the 68th minute – and again it was determined dummy-half mahi that got the treats, with right centre Joseph Manu swatting off tacklers in red-and-white jumpers to power over.

Tonga belatedly broke the procession of New Zealand tries when outstanding Roosters rookie Sitili Tupouniua made a break.

Jason Taumalolo, whose wrecking-ball running game was extraordinarily well-contained by the Kiwis, served up a delightful pass to send Sio Siua Taukeiaho over under the posts.

The drought-breaker sparked the majority pro-Tonga contingent in the crowd and the players, with Tupou slamming the ball down for his side’s third try after an aerial contest with Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

It was a deserving late flurry for the spirited Mate Ma’a Tonga outfit, but only thinly masked the comprehensive nature of New Zealand’s victory.

The Kiwis will now approach end-of-season Tests against Australia and Great Britain with justified confidence. For international rugby league darlings Tonga, it was a stinging reality check – though there is no denying the stirring impact of the team and their supporters on Test footy.

New Zealand Kiwis 34 (Shaun Johnson 2, Brandon Smith, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Jahrome Hughes, Joseph Manu tries; Esan Marsters 5 goals) defeated Mate Ma’a Tonga 14 (Solomone Kata, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Daniel Tupou tries; Taukeiaho goal) at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland. 

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