By RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission
Progress is the name of the game for the Tonga Invitational Sevens team competing at the Takiwhitu Tūturu invitational sevens, which kicks off in Wellington this morning.
New Zealand-based squads representing Samoa and Tonga will take part in the men’s tournament alongside two All Blacks Sevens teams, while a Moana Pasifika squad will feature in the women’s competition with two Black Ferns Sevens teams and a Black Ferns 15-a-side selection.
Tonga played three games against the All Blacks Sevens back in February, losing by 26, 54 and just five points respectively.
With 10 weeks to go until Final Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament in Monaco, co-captain John Tapueluelu said the next two days were a chance to make a statement.
“Every time we come up against New Zealand you know it’s going to be hard, physical and fast. For us as a group we just want to keep progressing from that and things that we did pick up on in sessions we try to work on that so hopefully come this weekend we’ll be able to show it out there,” he said.
With borders still closed because of Covid-19, only New Zealand-based players were considered for selection.
“Right here I feel like we can really make a statement and do our best for it as well. There will be learnings and everything here but I think we’re at a good position.We’re really blessed to be in NZ to be honest and to get this quality tournament is really a blessing.”
Auckland-based halfback, Aisea Halo, said the Tongan team was hungry to play and couldn’t wait to get back out on the field.
“It’s always good to come against New Zealand and Samoa, just with the quality players they have and just to be able to measure ourselves up against them is a good opportunity for us as a team and progress to that Olympic qualifier, so the boys are excited and hissing and ready to get out there and play some footy.”
The Tonga men’s sevens programme was already run out of New Zealand, under the watchful eye of former international Tevita Tu’ifua.
Most of the players were based in Auckland, with others travelling from as far afield as Oamaru and Dunedin.
The group developed into a tight-knit bunch in the last few years, Tapueluelu said.
“We may be like in different parts of New Zealand but when we come together I feel like everyone enjoys that bond that we have…it feels like when we come together we have that chemistry.
“It’s just a blessing to feed in new boys to this programme as well and everyone enjoying the weekend and learning with this new experience, and those players that have been here before as well feeding down to the younger players as well.”
Despite a real grass-roots feel to the Tongan squad, Tapueluelu insisted the door was open for former All Blacks and Wallabies stars like Charles Piutau and Israel Folau if they wanted to represent the kingdom in Monaco.
“It’s unreal to be honest to have those guys be even in the same breath (as us) with the opportunity that could come into fruition,” he said.
“It’s really exciting for our nation as well and where we’re at, trying to get good players for our fifteens as well – obviously they’re looking towards the World Cup and stuff like that. Honestly it’s great for rugby as a whole to be honest.”