This story was originally published on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.
Tonga is looking to restore its hopes for a place at the 2021 Rugby World Cup in this weekend’s Oceania repechage qualifier.
The kingdom were forced to withdraw from the Oceania Rugby Championships over measles concerns in November last year, but were thrown a World Cup lifeline after World Rugby agreed to a revised qualification process.
Tonga will face Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby on Saturday, with winner to play-off against Samoa in April for a berth in the final World Cup repechage tournament.
The team arrived in New Zealand earlier this week for a three-day training camp boosted by the inclusion of three Australian-based players and 11 from New Zealand.
Six players are expected to make their debut this weekend and assistant coach Sione Pulu said the camp has been important to help build team camaraderie.
“Training has been really good and the girls have got to know eachother while we’ve been here. It’s important for them to build those relationships because come game day they need to be comfortable with eachother out on the field.”
But the squad was hit with another hurdle on Thursday morning, when their flights from Auckland to PNG were postponed by 24 hours because of airport procedures around coronavirus.
Pulu insisted the delay had not hindered their training schedule, saying they were just excited to get another chance to compete for World Cup qualification.
“Last year, we had an 18 day quarantine and you could see it in their faces wanting to play,” he said.
“You know everybody’s playing but we were put into one spot isolated obviously, but the girls are really looking forward to having a crack, especially this Saturday.”
Tonga will come up against a PNG side who are yet to win a game over their Pacific counterparts, but Pulu isn’t taking anything by chance and expects they will face a determined side.
“Obviously they’re going to be pretty physical and we want to match that and hopefully come away with the victory, that’s what we’re planning for anyway.”
“We’ve just been trying to build for that game against PNG because we know they’re going to be pretty good so we’re going to try and get that first win out of the way.”
The winners of tomorrow’s game will play-off against Samoa in April for a berth in the final World Cup repechage.