SYDNEY (Reuters) - New Zealand underlined their class with a 26-6 win over Tonga in their first match of the World Cup year, while Papua New Guinea stunned Fiji as international rugby league returned this week after nearly three years lost to the COVID pandemic.
The Kiwis, world champions in 2008, had not played since November 2019 and a bumper crowd of 27,000, the majority Tongan, turned out for Saturday's Pacific test against the 2017 World Cup semi-finalists at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium.
The global health crisis also forced the postponement by a year of the 2021 World Cup and New Zealand showed why they will be among the contenders to wrest the crown away from Australia in November.
Joey Manu was outstanding at fullback and Jahrome Hughes ran the game from halfback as they gave a Tonga side studded with National Rugby League (NRL) players a lesson on the importance of quality in skill positions.
Halfback Lachie Lam, centre Justin Olam and fullback Alex Johnston did the same job for Papua New Guinea as the Kumuls overcame a strong Fiji side 24-14 in Sydney to send captain David Mead into international retirement a winner.
Earlier on Saturday, at the same Campbelltown Sports Stadium, David Nofoaluma scored four tries and his fellow winger Taylan May two as Samoa overcame a willing but limited Cook Islands side 42-12.
Lebanon, quarter-finalists at the 2017 World Cup, beat Malta 30-14 in Sydney on Wednesday in their first test under the guidance of former Australia rugby union coach Michael Cheika.
Australia's Kangaroos, champions in 11 of the 15 World Cups, have not played since late 2019 but the country's best players were tied up this week preparing for the second match in the State of Origin series.
England, losing World Cup finalists in 2017 and hosts later this year, have not played a test in almost four years but did get a run out against a Combined Nations All Stars at Warrington last weekend, winning 18-4.
The 16th Rugby League World Cup will take place from Oct. 15 to Nov. 19.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Edmund Klamann)