Happy New Year and welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

As I near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at Tonga.

RWC2019 Qualification

Tonga qualified as Oceania 2 by finishing 2ⁿᵈ overall in the Oceania regional qualifier, made up of the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cup tournaments.

2019 Form

The Ikale Tahi did not come into the tournament on the best of form. A win against Japan but losses to Samoa and Japan saw Tonga finish 5ᵗʰ in the Pacific Nations Cup. In their warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they defeated the Western Force, but lost to Fiji before being blown out by New Zealand in a match that saw the All Blacks willingly play a man down for the final chunk of the game.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4ᵗʰ in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • France 23-21 Tonga
    • USA 19-31 Tonga

Coming into a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations meant that it was always going to be difficult for Tonga, but they certainly fought hard and in a slightly different world could have found themselves qualifying for the knockouts.

Opening their campaign against England, Tonga put in a supremely physical performance – led by the big-hitting flanker Zane Kapeli – to cause England issues, but while fly half Kurt Morath controlled the game well, they struggled to create anything of note in attack.

Injury meant that Morath played no further part in their campaign and it took a while for his replacement James Faiva to grow into the tournament. Tonga looked like they were going to be blown out early by Argentina, going 28-0 down, but they recovered strongly and arguably should have had a penalty try for a no-arms tackle from Tomás Lavanini that was unbelievably deemed legal by referee Jaco Peyper. They started slowly again when taking on France, finding themselves 17-0 down after a very disjointed first half performance, but a strong platform at the scrum helped them recover well in the second half, just running out of time in their comeback.

With qualification for the knockouts behind them, they again started poorly against the USA, creating chances but not finishing them due to inaccuracies. They sorted things out int he second half, however, and were able to run away with things in the second half to finish the tournament on a high.

Looking Ahead

This is a very interesting time for Tonga. They have a squad that is far from perfect but still ran a couple of Tier 1 nations close. However, a number of their influential players from this squad have probably just played in their last world cup, including captain Siale Piutau, David Halaifonua, Cooper Vuna, Kurt Morath, Sione Kalamafoni and Siua Halanukonuka. There are certainly still some star players who have the chance to still be around in 4 years – Kapeli, Sam Lousi, Steve Mafi, Telusa Veainu, James Faiva and Sonatane Takulua – but they need to find the young talent to build up this squad and replace the outgoing players in order to push on.

What is very interesting when you look at Tonga’s RWC2019 squad is just how spread out the players are. The players are spread over 11 different countries, with just a handful of players in the “elite” leagues – and a couple of those are at Leicester Tigers, who look like their days in the Premiership could be numbered! Faiva looks like he could be the future at fly half for the next cycle, but can a player in the top league of Spanish rugby really play against the right level of opposition to run an international back line? Tonga needs to get more players into the top leagues, and they need to get to a state where they can play together more often, as the national team doesn’t play anywhere near as many matches as the Tier 1 nations.

As well as getting more matches against Tier 1 opposition – including home matches! – Tonga would benefit so much from having a franchise in Super Rugby, as players would be able to build chemistry together while also taking on an elite level of competition. I feel that Tonga are in a better place right now than Samoa, but the next 4 years will be crucial for Pacific Island rugby.

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