AP NEWS

Tonga fans out in force for All Blacks test

September 6, 2019

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Defending champion New Zealand may get a taste of conditions it will encounter at the Rugby World Cup later this month when it plays Tonga in its final warm-up match in Hamilton on Saturday.

While Tonga, ranked 15th, isn’t likely to stretch the top-ranked All Blacks who have won the previous five matches between the teams, Tongan fans may be in the majority among the crowd of around 30,000 expected at the Waikato Regional Stadium.

New Zealanders of Tongan heritage are avid fans of their national sporting teams and during the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, flag-waving fans clogged roads leading to Auckland Airport when the Tonga team arrived for the tournament.

At last year’s Rugby League World Cup in New Zealand, Tongan fans turned stadiums into a sea of red — their national color — as they cheered their team to the semi finals.

With red likely to predominate over black on Saturday, the All Blacks may discover what it is to play at a hostile stadium before they have to do so in Japan as they attempt to win the World Cup for the third straight time.

New Zealand’s previous winning margins against Tonga were 47-9 at the 2015 World Cup, 41-10 at the 2011 tournament, 91-7 in 2003, 102-0 in 2000 and 45-9 in 1999. Another high-scoring match is expected, though the lineup New Zealand will field is without some of the players who will feature in their opening World Cup against South Africa on Sept. 21.

The All Blacks will be eager to use the match to sharpen their attacking play, achieving what head coach Steve Hansen has referred to as “cracking the nut” of modern defenses.

“I think there’s a bias towards the defense (in test rugby),” Hansen said. “I think that’s definitely happened and then because of that everyone thinks (teams) are closer than we probably really are.

“But someone’s going to crack that defensive nut because history tells us it will happen and when it does, then it will open up the floodgates for the attacking game to come strong again. Then everyone will be saying there’s a bias towards attacking and they’ll go away and work harder on what they’re going to do on defense.”

Tonga coach Toutai Kefu will use the match to improve combinations and lift his team’s mental preparation for the World Cup after a relatively limited preparation. The Tongans lost three of four matches in this season’s Pacific Nations Cup and were beaten 29-9 by Fiji in their most-recent match.

Kefu still dares to believe his team can win Saturday, an outcome rated 40-1 by local odds-makers.

“It’s a massive challenge but I still believe we’re a chance of playing well and getting close,” Kefu said. “The All Blacks are the No. 1 team in the world so we’re under no illusions about that but we’ve still got a chance regardless of how small that is.”

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