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It's the game that could change the face of international rugby league, when Tonga take on the world champions Australia in Auckland on Saturday night.

Key points:

  • Tonga to field team made up of NRL and English Super League players
  • A win for Tonga could result in more high-profile games in the South Pacific
  • Several dual nationals have switched from NZ or Australia for Tonga

The two sides have never met before, but Tonga — with a team full of NRL and English Super League stars — are out to demonstrate that their tier-two ranking does not do them justice.

A competitive performance from the Mata Ma'a, let alone a win over the Kangaroos, could go a long way to changing the international calendar and generating more high-profile games for all the Pacific island teams.

For Tonga's coach, Kristian Woolf, the importance of the game cannot be underestimated.

"We've been very vocal about our desire to get these types of opportunities and we need to make sure that we back that up with performances," he said.

"The performance that we put in against Australia this weekend is extremely important for us going forward.

"I like to think it's very much the start of us changing things in the future."

Tonga rugby player Konrad Hurrell smiles and wears a red shirt while posing with young fans after a game.

Family ties bring players back to Tonga

What many pundits view as a power shift in the game began prior to the World Cup last year, when a host of top stars with dual nationality who had previously played for Australia or New Zealand opted to switch their allegiance to Tonga, including the Cronulla Sharks' Andrew Fifita.

With one World Cup winners medal in the bag, he said it would have been all too easy to stick with Australia and get a second one, but family loyalty and the nature of the challenge persuaded him to jump ship.

"If I look back at my childhood, I think I have to give something back to my father. When I told him I was going to represent him and my grandparents, he was forever grateful and he started crying. So you can tell how much it means to our people and out tiny island of Tonga," he said.

Tonga rugby league player Jason Taumalolo signs autographs for fans wearing the Tonga rugby team colours.

Fifita said for he and his Tongan teammates, taking on the world champions will be bigger than the NRL's annual show piece — State of Origin.

"I've got 16 people coming from Australia for this game, and I know a lot of the boys' families are coming over, I've got family from Tonga coming over. This game means the world to us."

Coach Kristian Woolf said Tonga had earned their chance to challenge the world's top team, but they wanted more high-profile games, and more for the other tier two Pacific teams, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

"What we think we deserve is opportunities like this to continue to play tier one nations and continue to be a part of big occasions and big events," Woolf said.

Those big occasions could come in the form of a Pacific championship which the Rugby League International Federation has suggested it would like to introduce as early as next year.

Victory for Tonga over Australia might just speed up that process and add a new level of competition to the international game.

Original Article

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