By RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission
The Tonga men’s rugby team will begin assembling in Tauranga today as they begin preparations to face the All Blacks and Manu Samoa in their first matches since the 2019 World Cup.
Half the squad are new to test rugby, with a number of front-line players unavailable for selection because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
‘Ikale Tahi coach Toutai Kefu admitted finalising a list of 30 players was a challenge.
“Purely because of the Covid restrictions and the restrictions of guys playing overseas so, in that sense, really really difficult but on the positive side you get to explore, investigate new players, so that was interesting.”
22 of the 30-man squad are already based in New Zealand, with four plying their trade in France, two from Australia and one each from Japan and Italy.
Most of the European based players are already part-way through 14 days in quarantine in Auckland and are scheduled to be released a few days before the Tonga face the All Blacks next weekend.
Kefu said the European based players selected were already coming back to New Zealand but more than 20 players turned down the chance to play against New Zealand and Samoa.
“Some of them were actually finishing up in France so we’re quite lucky that they were all coming home,” he said.
“The other guys who were involved with ‘Ikale Tahi before and are in France have decided to stay there, purely because of just the restrictions in terms of travelling, the quarantine, so they decided to actually stay back in France and we totally respect that and we understand that, so we have to manage that.”
Veteran prop Ben Tameifuna is en route to Aotearoa after Bordeaux were beaten by Toulouse yesterday in the French Top 14 semi finals.
He will miss next weekend’s test against the All Blacks while he completes his stint in quarantine, and Kefu said it could be a very inexperienced team that runs out at Mount Smart Stadium.
“We want to have the ability to throw a few punches but…there’s not many times you get to play the All Blacks so this is a massive opportunity for guys,” he said.
“Just looking at our squad I dare say those who will take the field will mainly be guys who have never played for the ‘Ikale Tahi before, so it’s a good opportunity for us to get a look at them under some pressure and in the game situations.”
There are 15 debutants in the Tongan squad, including former New Zealand sevens player Sam Vaka and Japan based winger Hosea Saumaki, who turned down the chance to play for the ‘Ikale Tahi three years ago.
Kefu also has high hopes for Hawkes Bay number eight Solomone Funaki, who was called into the Highlanders squad last month, and Chiefs backrower Viliami Taulani, who made his Super Rugby debut against the Blues in May.
“They’ve got a lot of ITM Cup experience and, not only that, in the last 12 months they’ve been playing very well,” he said.
“They’re fortunate to just recently have some Super Rugby experience as well, so they’re two guys that in our environment it looks like they’ll get some definite game time against the All Blacks. I think those two players will really shine and stand up.”
The ‘Ikale Tahi squad includes half a dozen players who have turned out for the Tongan sevens team in recent years, including Vaka, Funaki, Aisea Halo, John Tapueluelu, Walter Fifita and Fine Inisi.
“They’re very good young players and we’ve had our eye on them over the last couple of years,” Kefu enthused. “And that’s what the sevens programme is
there for us, is to blood this new talent that’s coming through, and they’ve been very influential in those sevens tournaments over the last couple of years.
“The natural progression (is) if they go really well we’ll bring them into our programme and see how they go…and we have high expectations of them.”
Former All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa, ex Wallabies loose forward Lopeti Timani and former Australian Sevens international Afusipa Taumoepeau are also now eligible to play for the ‘Ikale Tahi after competing at the Olympic Sevens Qualifier in Monaco at the weekend.
While they won’t be available for the July tests, Kefu was excited to have them in the selection mix.
“We have to say thank you to Tevita (Tu’ifua) and Richie (Weightman from the Tonga sevens team) who have done a lot of work behind the scenes to get these players capped
“The normal person wouldn’t see the amount of effort and work that goes into these processing scenarios…and without them this wouldn’t have been able to happen.”
Tonga was outclassed 92-7 when they last played the All Blacks before the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
While the ‘Ikale Tahi want to do well next weekend, Kefu said the two tests against Manu Samoa that follow are what matter most.
“We really want to qualify for that World Cup instead of going to that repechage.”