RWC2023: Tough Tongans cannot be ruled out

By Iliesa Tora, RNZ Pacific Senior Sports Journalist and is republished with permission

This is the second article in RNZ Pacific’s series on the three Pacific teams competing at the Rugby World Cup in France. In this piece, we look at Tonga’s ‘Ikale Tahi.

Tonga has defeated Canada 28-3 in the first of two-Test matches at Te’ufaiva Park in Nuku’alofa on Thursday. 10 August 2023. Photo: Canada

They say the only mountains one will find on Tongatapu are the people.

Strong-willed, diehards who never give up.

Tongatapu is the only major island in Tonga that does not have mountains, just hills.

Tonga’s motto ‘Ko e Otua mo Tonga ko hoku Tofia’ translated is ‘God and King are my inheritance’.

If you understand these you will understand why the Tongans refuse to give up on a rugby field.

Service to God and King are what the friendly islanders, as the late Captain James Cook called them, is what they believe in.

They take pride in that.

It’s what has brought home players like former All Blacks George Moala, Vaea Fifita, Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau, and former Wallabies Israel Folau and Adam Coleman.

It is what is driving them as they prepare for the Rugby World Cup in France starting next week.

Having struggled to get all their players on time for their July camp in Nuku’alofa and then having to face numerous injury challenges, head coach Toutai Kefu has put together a squad of 33 for the world meet.

Folau has missed out because he still needs another six weeks to fully heal from a knee injury that saw him play only against Australia A at Te’ufaiva Park in early July.

He missed all the other Test matches against Fiji, Japan, Samoa and Canada after that.

The ‘Ikale Tahi or ‘Sea Eagles’ are in a pool where they will have to be at their best throughout.

Pool of death

Defending World Cup champions South Africa, current world No.1 Ireland, world No.5 Scotland and Romania make up the pool.

Kefu, a World Cup player at the 1999 event for the Wallabies, has described it as a pool of death.

But he believes the team can cause upsets if they click on the day.

Tonga has competed in every Rugby World Cup since the first one in 1987, except for 1991 when they failed to qualify.

Their best performances were in 2007 and 2011.

In 2007 they finished third in their pool behind England and South Africa after wins over Samoa and the United States.

They defeated France in 2011, though it wasn’t enough to progress to the knockout stages.

Their build-up to this year’s event has been mixed, so there is a feeling of uncertainty about what they can do in France.

They won matches against Australia A and the two-Test series against Canada.

However, all their Pacific Nations Cup matches resulted in losses to Fiji, Japan and Samoa.

But they have some key players who can, as a team, cause upsets in their pool.

Array of talent

Big Ben Tameifuna, who was on the fringe of All Blacks selection while with the Chiefs in the Super Rugby Championship some years back, is a key player.

Siua Maile, Sitiveni Mafi, Tanginoa Halaifonua and Samiuela Louisi do do not step back from the challenge in tight plays and will be key for the side in set pieces.

Crusaders’ Sione Havili, Moana Pasifika captain Solomone Funaki, Vaea Fifita and Sione Vailanu are key ball winners in the breakdowns and good carriers of the ball.

Tongan captain Sonatane Takulua leads the Sipitau against Canada on 10 August 2023. Photo: Sevenitini Tomoua

Good understanding between them has seen them improve and they will be the key in winning possession off the ground and in tackle-ball situations.

Veteran captain Sonatane Takulua does not back down from any challenge.

He is Tonga’s most capped player having amassed 52 tests under his name.

His combination with William Havili, younger brother of All Black David Havili, will be the key to setting the experienced backline alight.

Havili has improved in the position but could face some tough challenges from both South Africa and Ireland, who like to test halves combinations with big forward charges and short interchanges directed at the number 10.

Tonga defeated Australia A 27-24 in Nuku’alofa on Friday, 14 July 2023. Photo: Sevenetini Tomoua

Midfield is an area where the Tongans have so much depth with Pita Ahki, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala and Afusipa Taumoepeau all having proven themselves.

With Moala due to miss at least the first three pool matches, a lot will fall on Ahki and Fekitoa to hold that midfield together.

Former Warriors league star and Mate Ma’a Tonga strike weapon Solomone Kata is one player that could be doing more damage than expected if he gets good possession and set-ups.

A great finisher, Kata has proven to be a revelation in rugby union when he switched codes three years ago.

Tonga also has the young Kyren Taumoefolau, drafted in from the Tonga 7s team, and Moana Pasifika winger Anzelo Tuitavuki, who are both growing in their game as well.

The No.15 jersey will no doubt belong to experienced former All Black Charles Piutau.

He will be the key man in defence and they can count on him to set up counter attacks from the back.

Ireland will be the team’s first match in Nantes on September 16.

South Africa follows the week after in Nice.

Don’t count them out yet.

They could be the Pacific’s dark horse.

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