The rise of Mate Ma’a Tonga continues with blockbuster rugby league tests against New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia all confirmed for later this year.
Tonga and New Zealand will kick off the new Oceania Cup On June 22 at Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland, in the much anticipated rematch of their Rugby League World Cup clash from 2017.
The stadium was turned into a sea of red by passionate Tongan fans for their game against the Kangaroos in October and given the level of demand for tickets for that match, Eden Park’s much larger capacity could have been considered an option for the June match.
But New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters said they decided to stick with Mount Smart.
“We wanted it to look and feel like the other games when Tonga’s been involved in recent years and to have that sort of feel about it,” he said.
“So, played in the heartland of rugby league, which is South Auckland, at a home where the Tonga crowd will flood to support the game and we wanted it to look special and create an event that’s going to stay in people’s minds for a long time.
Greg Peters said the Oceania Cup, which features Australia, New Zealand and Tonga in Pool A and Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea in Pool B, is a big chance for Pacific Island nations to build on their impressive performances in recent years.
“A big part of this is obviously embracing and respecting the contribution of Pacific Island players to rugby league in New Zealand,” he said.
“Not only in New Zealand but around other countries as well but particularly in our game in New Zealand, [with] the high proportion of Pacific Island that play in our game, this gives them an opportunity to showcase and play for their countries as well in their second home, which is New Zealand.”
The Kingdom will also face the touring Great Britain Lions in Hamilton on October 26 before taking on world champions Australia on November 2 as part of an international triple header at Eden Park, which also includes the Kiwis vs Great Britain and Toa Samoa taking on the Fiji Bati.
Tongan squad member Leivaha Pulu said it was great to have a full schedule to look forward to.
“Getting one game a year where the boys come together is quite tough but to get two or three games will be good,” he said.
“Especially with the brotherhood that they have over there it will be good to get a couple of games between each other and really relish our potential.”
Rugby Football League chief executive Ralph Rimmer said the return of the Great Britain Rugby League Lions was highly-anticipated.
“The return of the famous Great Britain jersey is something people have been talking about for a long time so this is an exciting announcement for us,” he said.
“It’s 12 years since Great Britain last played a Test, and 13 since they last travelled to the southern hemisphere, for the Tri-Nations series of 2006.”
“There is such history and tradition around that Great Britain shirt, it’s great for the game to have it back and we’ll be committed to respecting and honouring that tradition.”
Toa Samoa and the Papua New Guinea Kumuls will kick off their 2019 international season on 22 June at Leichhardt Oval in Western Sydney, in the first Oceania Cup Pool B match.
PNG will also face the Fiji Bati in Christchurch on November 9, as part of a double header with the second test between the Kiwis and Great Britain.
The Lions will then travel to PNG to round off their tour with a test against the Kumuls at the National Football Stadium in Port Moresby on 16 November, while the PNG Orchids women’s team will face a Pacific All Stars selection.
Rugby League International Federation Southern Hemisphere General Manager Jeremy Edwards said the international program for 2019 is both exciting and ground-breaking.
“It is great to see the Great Britain Rugby League Lions following in the historic footprints of previous tours,” he said.
“The Oceania Cup is an important step in creating a full international calendar that fans, players and commercial partners can enjoy.”
“It has taken a huge amount of work to deliver this and I commend the efforts of all those who have brought us to this point. It is a great platform for the international game in the Asia Pacific Region.”