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Plans for Tonga to increase Test match involvement

The remarkable scenes at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night are set to be repeated next year with plans for Tonga to play Tests against New Zealand, Australia and the touring Great Britain Lions, as well as rivals Samoa.

A capacity 26,214 crowd sung themselves hoarse from kick off to fulltime - pausing only to cheer whenever a Tongan player made a break or a bruising tackle, or forced another repeat set.

The 34-16 loss to Australia on Saturday night may not have been what the MMT players or supporters were hoping for but the island kingdom proved that they can compete with the world champions in the first Test between the two countries.

Now they are going to be given more opportunities to play tier-one nations, with Tonga coach Kristian Woolf confirming discussions had commenced about end-of-season Tests against the Kangaroos, Lions and Samoa, while the June 22 clash with the Kiwis has already been confirmed.  

"The more we can play the better and better we are going to get," Woolf said. "This game was the start of it and New Zealand is the next step.

Match Highlights: Kangaroos v Mate Ma'a - First Test

"The conversations we have had were all around other opportunities against a travelling British Lions and Australia again, obviously Samoa and a lot more Tests, I guess, and a lot more big opportunities against tier-one nations.

"That's what we want, that's how we are going to get better and that's how we can become a real force on the international scene."

The June Test against New Zealand is the first time Tonga has had a game scheduled so far in advance and Woolf said it would allow him and his staff to be better organised and capitalise on the success of the team by securing greater sponsorship.

"I've been involved for five years and Tongan rugby league has lived game-by-game outside the World Cup," he said. "You never quite know when your next game is coming up and quite often when you do know it is coming it is six or seven weeks so everything is a rush so that certainly helps in terms of preparation.

"Once we have that calendar we are not having to sit down and trying to round up as many sponsors as we can in a six or seven week period. We can certainly be a lot more organised and a lot more financial off the back of that, as well."

After a nervous opening 40 minutes, Tonga matched it with the Kangaroos in the second half as both teams scored a try apiece.

They did it without halfback Ata Hingano, who dislocated his shoulder just five minutes into the match and bravely battled on until it popped out again in the 25th minute. In addition, most of the Tonga squad had not played for six weeks.

Taukeiaho praises Mate Ma'a Tonga crowd

"At times, it looked a bit like a team that hasn't played footy and a team that had played three games on the trot and was looking to fine tune itself," Woolf said

"Going forward, I think that is something that needs to be afforded to us if we are going to have these games and obviously we want more of these opportunities and I would like to think we can prepare properly.

"We certainly showed that we can be competitive and we certainly showed that we're physically up to that challenge."

With fans waving giant Tongan flags and wearing shirts from last year's World Cup, Mt Smart Stadium was a sea of red.

So eager were the MMT fans to watch their team play again that thousands had queued outside the stadium more than an hour before the gates opened at 6pm, and the 7.45pm kick off was needed to get the crowd seated before Andrew Fifita led the Sipi Tau.

However, the atmosphere was not hostile towards the Kangaroos, who had ensured the viability of the Test by agreeing to 75 per cent pay cuts, and the Tonga supporters sung the Australian national anthem as well as their own.

Among the crowd was the King of Tonga, Tupou VI, members of the royal family, Tonga MPs, ARLC chairman Peter Beattie and three other commissioners, NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and his executive team, and RLIF chief executive Nigel Wood.

Kata cuts the deficit

A meeting in Auckland on Friday discussed a full international calendar and Woolf said he was sure other Pacific nations would benefit from having more Tests.

"Outside of the NRL, international rugby league is the real growth area for our sport and you have only got to look at occasions like tonight to see the support there is for it," he said.

"I know that it is our fans at the moment but I have no doubt there are other countries looking for the same opportunities who would get the same sort of support

."I think the more we put these sort of games forward we will get a more competitive international scene."

Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.