Tonga come into the World Cup ranked #11 in the world and on the back of a strong Pacific Nations Cup performance, where their only loss was against eventual winners, Fiji. In their pool, Tonga needs to fight off threats from Georgia while targeting a win against Argentina for a shot of making the quarters for the first time.
1. Ever Improving
Tonga have contested every World Cup except 1991. Over that period of time, ‘Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) have steadily improved. The culmination was a victory over France in the pool stages in 2011. All that stood between them and the quarters was an out of character loss against Canada.
In the last calendar year, Tonga have won five from seven. Their only losses have been at the hands of Fiji and Scotland. Critically, they also have a 23-9 away victory over Georgia in that time, as well.
2. The Politics of Pacific Rugby
Tonga, like the other Pacific Island nations, suffers from a variety of political issues as they put together their team to take on the RWC. The most obvious political drama is the lack of respect for Tonga by the European clubs where many of the players ply their trade. It’s not exactly certain how many players haven’t been released for the squad, but there has been enough uncertainty to give oxygen to a rumour that NRL player Anthony Fifita may run out for them. Fortunately, Fifita wasn’t on the 30-man World Cup squad.
The Tongan union is also concerned about the number of players who are holding out on representing Tonga in the hope they’ll be picked by Australia or New Zealand, where many players hold residence or qualify through ancestry. This is a double-whammy for Tonga as, if the players are selected for the Wallabies or All-Blacks, they may only play a handful of tests and remain ineligible for the Sea Eagles.
3. Nili Latu
The captain, Latu has 39 test for Tonga under his belt for Tonga, as well as 6 for the Pacific Islanders. He has been released for RWC by his new club, Newcastle Falcons, after being signed from NEC Green Rockets in Japan, where he has made his professional home for the last eight years.
The flanker isn’t the biggest player Tonga can field, but he is an energetic leader who leads by example and empowers the fires up the team with his big hits and hard running. After the 2007 World Cup, many ‘Teams of the Tournament’ articles by respected journalists had him in front of Richie McCaw for the openside spot.
Tonga will need Latu’s exceptional leadership to give them the impetus to get up for each game, but will also need him to enforce team discipline, which has been a problem in the past.
4. Tongan Ill-Discipline
Tonga have the dubious honour of holding the record for the most red cards in Rugby World Cup history. The record is three and they hold it with joint champions, Canada – which seems strange, as well.
But things are improving. From 2006 until 2013, Tonga were the worst disciplined team in the Pacific Nations Cup competition. The only time they were bested in that time was 2008, when Australia headed up the list. However, since 2014, Tonga have been the choirboys of the competition. Perhaps ‘Ikale Tahi have finally gotten their act together.
5. Pool C Snakes and Ladders
I don’t think many pundits will see Tonga knocking New Zealand off in the pool, but the rest of the matches represent either a threat or a great opportunity for the Sea Eagles. Tonga will be looking at Argentina as their opportunity to cause the upset that could see them propelled into the quarters, while the Namibia game will be seen as an opportunity for a much needed bonus point and some for-and-against collateral.
But the threat comes from Georgia. Georgia will fancy their chances against Tonga and will be targeting Argentina themselves. While Tonga rightly go into their match as favourites, the matchup is made more mysterious as it’s on the first weekend of the tournament.