Kiwis braced for full house in Tonga clash

Source: AAP

All rugby league eyes, not just those in the expected capacity crowd, will be fixed on Mount Smart Stadium when New Zealand host Tonga.

A capacity crowd of 25,000 people will be at Mt Smart Stadium to watch the Kiwis face Tonga.

The Kiwis will field a strong line-up against an equally impressive Tonga on Saturday, in a prelude to the World Cup to be held later this year in England.

After a break of almost three years, international rugby league returns to New Zealand and a massive wave of support is expected for the Tongans with Auckland home to the largest community outside the island nation itself.

The usual loud car convoys and flags will be out in force, with a capacity crowd of 25,000 expected and national passion on full display.

"To watch the players come in and the passion they have for this space - it's pretty exciting," Kiwis coach Michael Maguire told media.

"The players, especially in the past, have built a momentum towards what they want to achieve, and that's success at the World Cup.

"This week they have a very important Test match to be able to come back together and reignite."

Good form in the NRL this season has rewarded the Parramatta Eels pair of Dylan Brown and Marata Niukore, who will both make their Kiwis debut after being named at five-eighth and centre respectively.

It's also the first time in a black and white jersey for Sharks winger Ronaldo Mulitalo, while Panthers prop Moses Leota will make his debut off the interchange bench.

There are high hopes for the Kiwis, who boast Melbourne stars Brandon Smith, Jahrome Hughes and Nelson Asofa-Solomona while Joseph Manu from the Roosters switches to fullback.

With Dallin Watene-Zelezniak out of the match day 17, this will be the first Kiwis side not to feature any Warriors players since the club's inception in 1995.

The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted what had been an intriguing redemption arc for the Kiwis after their extremely poor showing at the 2017 RLWC.

The David Kidwell-coached side were bundled out in the quarter-finals in a tryless 4-2 loss to Fiji, in a tournament that was dominated by Tonga's dream run to the semi-finals.

After Kidwell decided against re-applying as coach, Maguire took over and managed to record a win over the world champion Australians in 2018, then a win over Tonga in 2019.

Despite the lack of Tests over the past two seasons, the Kiwis head into this game ranked as world No.1.

Meanwhile, Tongan caretaker coach Dean Young has benefited from the defection of Kotoni Staggs from an Origin jersey to represent his country of heritage.

Former Kiwi Jason Taumalolo will line up against his old team for the third time while the side will be led by veteran Siosuia Taukeiaho.