Powerful, heartfelt, passionate, emotional. And this was before a ball was even kicked.
Two ferocious war dances and the sight of Benji Marshall shedding tears during the New Zealand national anthem showed how much these games mean to the players.
Representing their country and their family is the pinnacle.
Long live international rugby league.
The Kiwis exacted revenge over Mate Ma’a Tonga from their 2017 World Cup loss, with a convincing 34-14 victory.
- 5 – The Kiwis have now won five of the six tests played between these two nations, dating back to 1995.
- 34 – This is the second consecutive test match that the Kiwis have scored 34 points. They beat England 34-0 in their last outing.
Mt Smart Stadium was once again a sea of red Tongan flags, invoking scenes of the 2017 World Cup where Tongan fans supported their team in huge numbers throughout New Zealand.
- 23,624 – This was the largest crowd the Kiwis have ever had at Mt Smart Stadium, surpassing the 22,994 for the Kiwis 14-all draw with the Kangaroos back in 1993.
- 5 – The Kiwis have now won their past five Tests at Mt Smart Stadium, defeating Tonga, Samoa (twice each) and the Kangaroos.
- 40.8 – The Kiwis have scored an average of 40.8 points per Test in those past 5 fixtures at Mt Smart.
Kiwi hooker Brandon Smith opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a brilliant 35-metre solo effort, splitting the Tongan defence open from dummy-half and leaving several defenders sprawled on the turf in his wake.
- 2 – This was Smith’s seconnd test try for the Kiwis, in his fifth test.
- 2 – Both of his Test tries have come at Mt Smart Stadium.
- 2 – He has scored the same amount of tries for the Melbourne Storm – in 33 games.
Tonga then turned the screws on the Kiwis with five consecutive sets, finally cracking the resolute Kiwi defense in the 21st minute. A brilliant Daniel Tupou tap-back from a cross-kick allowed out-of-favour Warriors centre (and new Storm signing) Solomone Kata to scamper over in the corner.
- 1 – This was the first try Kata has scored in the top flight since his double for the Warriors in their Round 1 thrashing of the Bulldogs earlier this season.
- 2 – This was Kata’s second consecutive try at Mt Smart Stadium for Tonga, also scoring in their 34-16 loss to the Kangaroos in October last year.
Just eight minutes later it was the Kiwis’ turn to take the ascendancy, with Shaun Johnson – in his first game back at Mt Smart since his acrimonious departure from the Warriors – showing some of the old magic that made him a crowd favourite.
- 3 – Johnson’s last game at Mt Smart Stadium was a 26-24 victory over the Kangaroos last October, where he kicked three goals.
He made it look all too easy with a trademark show-and-go through some feeble defence that opened up like Manukau Heads, dotting down for his 12th Test try.
With halftime imminent Johnson produced an almost identical effort to his first, again opening up the Tongan defence with ease.
- 13 – Shaun Johnson with his 13th Test try for the Kiwis moved level with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for most Kiwis tries scored in the current squad.
- 2 – This was Shaun Johnson’s second career double for the Kiwis. His first came in a 48-0 win over France in the 2013 RLWC.
- 1 – It was his first double in any match since he scored two for the Warriors against the Roosters back in April 2016.
Johnson and Smith were in clear control of the first half, their performances streets ahead of any other player on the park. The Kiwis headed into the halftime break up 16-4.
- 6 – The Kiwis have been in front at halftime in all six tests they have played against Tonga.
- 1 – The Kiwis have lost only once against Tonga when leading at halftime, the 28-22 loss at the 2017 RLWC.
The Kiwis were straight out of the gates in the second half, carrying on their dominance they had showed in the first.
Brandon Smith once again wrought havoc around the ruck, leaving defenders dropping like flies around him before stabbing a kick through for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to dot down (after Johnson had initially been credited with a hat-trick in the goal-line scramble).
- 14 – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck moved to 14 career tries for the Kiwis in just 17 Tests. He is now level with James Leuluai in equal-10th place for the all-time most tries for the Kiwis. Manu Vatuvei is in outright first with 22 tries.
Possession flowed back Tonga’s way, but try as they might the Kiwis staunch defence held strong. They may have thought their luck was changing as their tormentor Smith went off for a spell. His running game was relentless, continuously tormenting the Tongan defence.
- 126 – Smith ran for 126 metres and made 10 tackle busts in his hour of game-time.
But his replacement, Storm teammate Jahrome Hughes, showed up the lacklustre Tongan defence not long after coming on and scored on debut.
- 3 – This was Hughes’ third try at Mt Smart Stadium this month, after also scoring two tries for the Storm against the Warriors on June 8th.
Only five minutes later, the rout was on as Roosters centre Joseph Manu – showing shades of Hughes’ previous try – made it look far too easy as he touched down for his second test try.
- 2 – Both of Joseph Manu’s tries for the Kiwis have come at Mt Smart Stadium. His other was in a 26-24 victory over the Kangaroos in 2018.
Tonga, staring down the barrel of a humiliating defeat in front of their passionate supporters, managed to offer some payback.
Debutant Sitili Tupouniua broke through and found Jason Taumalolo who produced a slick ball to send Sio Siua Taukeiaho over in the 73rd minute. The Tongan crowd celebrated wildly, clearly lifting the players on the field.
- 3 – All three players that featured in Taukeiaho’s try were born in Auckland.
The riposte was quick, with Daniel Tupou slamming down the final try of the night in the corner.
- 6 – Daniel Tupou scored his sixth test try for Tonga – the most of any current Tongan player.
- 2 – Tupou has scored in his last two tests for Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium, also scoring in last years 34-16 loss to the Kangaroos.
The final flurry of Tongan points flattered the Tongan overall effort. This was a game the Kiwis were in total control of from start to finish. Some fiery opening exchanges was the only time Tonga seemed to really hold their own.
The Tongans looked disorganised and their lack of a quality playmaker showed. The Kiwis, on the other hand, were impressive. Their big men set the platform for Smith and Johnson to run riot.
Michael Maguire will be happy with his side’s discipline and their clinical performance. All bodes well for the end-of-year tests against Australia and England.
- 6 – This was Michael Maguire’s sixth test in charge of the Kiwis, securing his third win.