International rugby league is back — and who knows how far it can go?
It wasn't long ago the game seemed to be withering away but Saturday's triple header in Auckland suggests the 2021 World Cup in England will be the most competitive in history.
Tonga's stunning 16-12 win over the Kangaroos was one of the most significant results in decades. Tonga will only get better in the buildup to World Cup, and Saturday night's win is a another step, rather than the climax, in their journey.
The Kiwis' gritty 12-8 win over Great Britain was also significant. It was a result that wouldn't have been possible a couple of years ago, but this team is made of sterner stuff under coach Michael Maguire.
They had no Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Issac Liu or Tohu Harris. Long time enforcer Martin Taupau has swapped to Samoa, and the Tongan muscle they used to rely on, headed by Jason Taumalolo, is no longer an option. Regular captain Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was scratched through injury, and first choice hooker (Brandon Smith) was absent after a breach of team protocol.
To illustrate the experience void in the team, there were only two survivors from the famous 2015 Anzac test win over Australia, and one of them, Kieran Foran, was gone after six minutes. But they battled, fought and scraped their win to a tough victory — a benchmark that confirmed the Kiwis are on an upward curve.
The Lions have yet to click on this tour, but England will be formidable on home soil in two years and are developing more NRL talent.
And we can't forget Fiji. They are constantly overlooked, despite reaching the semifinals of the past three World Cups. They were massive underdogs on Saturday, with a contingent of State League players against an NRL-laden Samoa. But they smashed them 44-18, and with more games between now and the World Cup, who knows what is possible?
Samoa are an enigma. They have plenty of talent, but have yet to put it all together. They didn't look a united at the 2017 World Cup, and it was the same on Saturday. They need more preparation time and match opportunities, but that wasn't an excuse for the lack of commitment.
They have so much potential. Maybe Sonny Bill Williams is the man to galvanise them in two years' time.