Home SPORTS Rugby World Cup 2023: Former All Blacks ready to cause upset for...

Rugby World Cup 2023: Former All Blacks ready to cause upset for Tonga against Ireland

Former All Blacks Vaea Fifita, George Moala, Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa are all in Tonga’s World Cup squad
Venue: Beaujoire Stadium, Nantes Date: Saturday, 16 September Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Sports Extra, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sounds, plus live text updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

“When they talk, we listen.”

So says Tonga captain and scrum-half Sonatane Takulua of the players they can call on who used to represent New Zealand or Australia.

After a change in rugby’s international eligibility rules in 2021, Tonga now have a star-studded line-up. Hopes of reaching a first World Cup quarter-final are as high as they have ever been, even though they are in the same group as world number one side Ireland, holders South Africa and fifth-ranked Scotland.

Tonga’s crop of 2023 includes former All Blacks George Moala, Vaea Fifita, Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Augustine Pulu, while former Wallabies lock Adam Coleman is also in the 33-man squad.

“They play a really high level of rugby and to bring that in and share it with us, the learning skills – the boys are pretty quick to react,” added Takulua.

“I can see in training it’s been a quick transition – the way they adjust and react to what we are doing.”

World Rugby’s birthright amendmentexternal-link allows capped players to switch allegiance to another Test side after a three-year period, provided they, a parent or grandparent were born in the country they wish to play for.

Tonga have finished third in their pool in four World Cups – missing out on the last eight by only two points in 2011, and enjoying a famous win over eventual finalists France.

Head coach Toutai Kefu believes his squad, ranked 15th in the world, will be able to compete with Ireland in their opening game on Saturday in Nantes.

“This is certainly the strongest Tongan team on paper,” Kefu said. “I certainly think we’re good enough. We’re talking about the best team in the world here. It could be a game of inches; it might not be.”

Who are the players?

  • Centre Fekitoa, who was capped 24 times by the All Blacks, was part of the New Zealand squad who won the 2015 World Cup.
  • His powerful midfield partner Moala, 32, who will miss the game against Ireland because of suspension, scored three tries in his four All Blacks appearances.
  • Versatile back Piutau, 31, who spent five seasons thrilling Bristol Bears fans before agreeing a deal to play in Japan, narrowly missed out on the 2015 World Cup squad, but made 17 appearances for the All Blacks – winning every single game.
  • Utility forward Fifita, 31, who won 11 caps between 2017 and 2019, has been a standout performer for Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship after leaving New Zealand for Wasps in 2021.
  • Takulua’s scrum-half counterpart Pulu, 33, played twice for the All Blacks in 2014 against the United States and Scotland before switching to Tonga in 2022.
  • Coleman played for Australia 38 times, coming on as a second-half substitute in their quarter-final loss to England in the 2019 World Cup.
Brothers Charles and Siale Piutau
Charles and Siale Piutau played club rugby together at Wasps and Bristol Bears

‘I still pinch myself – is this actually real?’

Piutau looked into following Fekitoa into playing for the Tonga sevens team after completing his three-year hiatus from international rugby, which was a way to qualify before the new rule was implemented.

However, his plan did not materialise as the club season in Europe ran at the same time as the sevens circuit.

“I still have to pinch myself and think: Is this actually real? Has this happened? It is pretty awesome,” he said on finally completing the switch.

“[The Rugby World Cup] is the pinnacle of our game and something that I have always wanted to be part of and test my abilities at this stage – and although I am a little bit older, I still feel quite young.

“There is a lot of pride knowing I get to represent Tonga, my family and people back home.”

His brother, former Tonga captain Siale Piutau, told BBC Sport: “Charles had always been looking into changing to Tonga.

“He always had that ambition to play at a Rugby World Cup and he missed out in 2015 with the All Blacks, so that was something he still wanted to tick off.”

Despite the influx of talent, one thing which remains consistent is the lack of resources in Tongan rugby.

“There are a lot of challenges the team faces, even now, from when I was in the team in terms of resources, flights and all these things that would probably hamper the preparations,” Siale Piutau said.

“I just hope all those things off-field that probably hamper the team are able to bring them close together as a team to produce.”

In the lead-up to the World Cup, Tonga struggled in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup and lost to Fiji, Japan and Samoa, even with Fifita, Fekitoa and Piutau playing in every game.

Siale, who plays his club rugby in Japan for Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks, presented their Test jerseys before the game against Japan and reminded the squad that “no-one really remembers the results during the warm-ups”.

He added: “This is the best opportunity for this group to go make history and hopefully push through to the quarter-finals, which has never been done before.”

It may seem mission impossible for Tonga, but Saturday will show if their best-ever team on paper can produce the goods on the pitch.

Watch on iPlayer bannerWatch on iPlayer footer

Source link