Mate Ma’a Tonga fired up for first quarterfinal clash
AUCKLAND, New Zealand – November 17: 9.25pm (NZN): Tonga are riding the crest of a Rugby League World Cup wave and they’re not ready to wipe out just yet.
Last week’s 28-22 pool victory over New Zealand – the first ever victory of a tier-two nation over a tier-one nation – has set the cat among the pigeons, with Mate Ma’a earning an easier run to the Cup final.
Instead of a projected semi-final against tournament favourites Australia, they’ve found themselves on the other side of the draw.
That starts today, with their quarter-final against Lebanon in Christchurch, before a semi-final against either England or Papua New Guinea.
But coach Kristian Woolf wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
Woolf told reporters he was pleased with his side’s intensity in training this week and were taking the Cedars very seriously.
Australian-born stars Robbie Farah and Mitchell Moses have produced the goods in the halves, ably assisted by hooker Michael Lichaa.
“They’re a good group,” Woolf said. “It’s the first time Tonga have been in the quarter-finals and that opportunity is not lost on the players.
“They certainly understand what it is and what it presents for us.
“The real focus for us now is making sure we get through the quarters. There’s a lot of self-belief, [but] it’s really important we centre that towards this game.”
Backed by an army of fans, and supported by a cast of Kiwi and Kangaroos defectors, such as Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, Tonga have upended international rugby league at the Cup and become tournament darlings.
Yet Woolf insisted his side had their feet firmly on the ground and knew their success could all come crashing down with a poor showing against Lebanon.
They had steadily improved each week and would strive to keep doing so.
On the injury front, prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho remains a touch-and-go proposition with a knee knock, but Michael Jennings is fit and raring to go.
The ex-Kangaroo missed last week’s win over the Kiwis in Hamilton, but has been named to start alongside Konrad Hurrell in the centres.
“They’re a group that just keeps rising to the challenge [and] just backing themselves,” Woolf said. “That’s what I like about the group – we’ve gotten better and better with every game in a number of ways.
“If you want to play a bit of footy and want to find ways to find points, which our boys certainly do, you need to be able to back that up defensively.”
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