New Zealand Kiwis A and Mate Ma’a Tonga A added another vibrant chapter to the nations’ burgeoning rugby league rivalry, getting the Eden Park triple-header underway with an 11-try thriller.
The Nathan Cayless-coached Kiwis A side ultimately prevailed 36-26 in a match characterised by big momentum swings. Kiwis A were ahead of the clock in storming to a 12-0 advantage, but Tonga A dominated the majority of the first half with the next three tries.
Three unanswered tries after the break put Kiwis A on course for victory, though a late flurry from Tonga A ensured the result was in the balance until the latter stages.
Following stirring pre-match Sipi Tau and haka challenges that would have done any Tonga or Kiwis side that has graced the international arena proud, the home side needed just two minutes to post the opening try after Tonga A’s kick-off sailed dead on the full.
Kiwis A halfback Zach Dockar-Clay and fullback Keano Kini combined superbly to give Melbourne Storm wing sensation Will Warbrick a path to the corner. Warriors livewire Taine Tuaupiki – lining up in the No.6 jersey – bounced the sideline conversion off the crossbar and over for an early 6-0 lead.
Tonga A successfully withstood another dangerous attacking raid, but an ill-conceived offload 10 metres out from their own line under strong defensive pressure gifted a try to Kiwis A second-rower Jack Howarth, a former Australian Schoolboys rep who made his NRL debut with the Storm in August.
After narrowly avoiding further scoreboard damage, Tonga A’s first genuine attacking set came unstuck when a deflected kick saw imposing Warriors NSW Cup tyro Jacob Laban charge 30 metres upfield for Kiwis A. Another chance slipped through the visitors’ fingers when fullback Delouise Hoeter couldn’t grasp a brilliant chip kick with no defenders in front of him.
The errors kept flowing from Kiwis A midway through the first half, but stout goal-line defence compensated for the drop-off in ball control.
The torrent of possession finally told in the 29th minute, however, when a barnstorming dummy-half run from ex-Warriors hooker Temple Koloamatangi-Kalepo opened Tonga A’s account. Naati Teaupa’s conversion pulled the scores back to 12-6.
Tonga A squared the ledger soon afterwards on the back of a magnificent charge from North Queensland-bound centre Viliami Vailea. Auckland-born 19-year-old second-rower Kulikefu Finefeuiaki – who played 12 NRL games for the Cowboys this season – busted the Kiwis A defence a couple of plays later and plunged over for his side’s second try.
The red wave continued to wash over a shellshocked Kiwis A outfit as Salesi Foketi won the race to a deft grubber two minutes out from the break, giving Tonga A a stunning 18-12 halftime lead.
Cayless’ charges returned from the sheds with far greater impetus. Kiwis A forced an early line dropout before Warriors top-grade regular Rocco Berry was held up over the line, but the centre’s incisive run and quick play-the-ball during the hosts’ next set laid the platform for an equalising try.
Hooker Danny Levi, a New Zealand Test rep at the 2017 World Cup and part of the current Kiwis squad, sliced up the Tongan defence and found quicksilver Titans teenager Kini backing up to finish off a 50-metre try under the posts.
Kiwis A regained the lead in the 53rd minute through recent Warriors NRL debutant Paul Roache, who took an offload from Dockar-Clay and made a beeline for the in-goal from 10 metres out.
Multiple errors from Tonga A proved costly as Kiwis A carved out a 12-point advantage at the hour mark.
Kini’s exquisite tip-on of a Tuaupiki pass from a scrum win gave fellow 2023 NRL newcomer, winger Ali Leiataua, a saloon passage to score out wide. Tuaupiki nailed another conversion from touch, his fifth of the afternoon.
Tonga A struck back with 14 minutes remaining – and in their first genuine visit to the opposition’s 20-metre zone in the second half. Classy backline hands opened up some space for big Burleigh Bears winger Tony Francis, who produced a sensational finish to slam the ball on the goal-line. But the missed conversion kept the scoreline at 30-22.
The result was effectively sealed soon after the restart, with Tonga A unable to clean up the kick-off. Great footwork and an even better flick offload from Berry sent Warbrick crashing in for his second try, while another superb sideline goal from Tuaupiki provided Kiwis A with a vital 14-point buffer.
A scoring chance fell by the wayside for Tonga A when Vailea’s long-range run from a Kiwis A mistake was foiled by a magnificent chase and cover tackle from former clubmate Berry. But with three minutes on the clock, excellent vision from Koloamatangi-Kalepo put left winger Sione Hopoate over untouched for the last try of a highly entertaining encounter.
New Zealand A captain Kalani Going, a revelation for the Warriors’ NSW Cup side and an NRL debutant in the final round of 2023, looked every bit the leader on both sides of the ball. Young Kiwis A forwards Howarth, Wiremu Greig, Pasami Saulo, and twin towers Benjamin Te Kura and Joe Chan grabbed their representative opportunity with both hands, while Dockar-Clay, Tuaupiki and Kini consistently provided offensive spark.
New Zealand Kiwis A 36 (Will Warbrick 2, Jack Howarth, Keano Kini, Paul Roache, Ali Leiataua tries; Taine Tuaupiki 6 goals) defeated Tonga A 26 (Temple Koloamatangi-Kalepo, Kulikefu Finefeuiaki, Salesi Foketi, Tony Francis tries; Naati Teaupa 3 goals) at Eden Park, Auckland on Saturday, October 21.