Mate Ma'a Tonga announced themselves as a force on the rugby league stage with a win over the Kiwis in the 2017 World Cup.

It was the first time a second tier nation had beaten one of the game's top three, and has been a platform the side has built a foundation on.

Now, they're coming for more.

"We know as a goal, going into the World Cup we want to be a top three nation," Mate Ma'a Tonga prop Tevita Pangai Jr said.


"Our eyes are on the Kiwis, and we're looking longer term. Long term we're wanting to be in the top three."

Playing more matches against the top tier is the first step for Tonga to make progress in the standings, with the Rugby League International Federation's ranking system giving more points for a win over a strong nation than they would for a win over a lesser ranked country.

With some of the game's top players now donning the red jersey, Mate Ma'a Tonga poses a big threat to any team in the world game. Pangai Jr said the example set by lock Jason Taumalolo and fellow prop Andrew Fifita is a big reason for the country's surge.

"The boys coming through, we really want to honour them by electing to put Tonga before tier one nations and origin."

Six players in the Tongan squad to take on the Kiwis at Mt Smart on Saturday have played tests for New Zealand, but have since chosen to represent the Tonga instead. It adds a little extra to what has become one of rugby league's most exciting rivalries. But while they're still ranked behind the Kiwis, Pangai Jr said the hosts should be considered the favourites heading into the match.

"A lot of the boys, I'm sure if they had put their hands up for the Kiwis, they would have been in that team. But their love of the nation and the Tongan people, they've chosen to play for Tonga and it's an honour to play with them.

"We're still ranked fourth, so we're still the underdog. We've still got a lot to prove as a little nation, so we've got to get the win if we want the Tongan crowd to keep turning up."

A bumper crowd is expected to flood into Mt Smart Stadium for the match. Last year in Mate Ma'a Tonga's loss to the Kangaroos at the same ground, you'd have done well to find a patch in the stands that wasn't red.


But it won't just be Tongan and Kiwis fans turning out this time around, with Fetu Samoa's women's side taking on the Kiwi Ferns in the first match of the double header.

It will be the first time in 11 years that the two have met on the international stage, with the Kiwi Ferns winning their 2008 match during the World Cup in Brisbane.