THE RED DARLINGS
Tonga are quite often the darling of the tournament and would love to be so again.
Tonga have a good recent World Cup pedigree where they have overachieved and won the respect and admiration of neutral observers. They hope to do so again says GREGOR PAUL.
THEY ARRIVE IN ENGLAND AS..?
A team the neutral will be rooting for. Tonga were the darlings of the 2007 tournament and to a lesser extent, the 2011 World Cup. In 2007 they rattled England and came surprisingly close to beating South Africa. Last time round they beat France and they beat them well.
That’s the thing with Tonga, World Cups are one of the few occasions they are assembled for any meaningful period and time together allows them to utilise their natural talents and considerable rugby prowess. They are, possibly, an outside bet to make the last eight but it’s too hard to see. They would have to beat the Pumas – which is unlikely. They will also have to beat Georgia which might in fact be decidedly difficult.
WHAT TYPE OF FOOTBALL WILL THEY PLAY?
High impact. The Tongan mentality is to hit hard in the tackle and use aggressive defence to unsettle opponents. They will be happy enough to grind up the middle with pick and go and probably kick more than the other two Pacific Island sides.
ARE THEY SUITABLY MOTIVATED?
Tonga have been good at the last two World Cups and some of that is because they know the biggest stage is the best place to play well as it gets them noticed. If they are to win what they want – more fixtures and more fixtures against better opposition – then they have to impress at the World Cup.
That’s the way to get noticed. It worked for Argentina. They made the semifinals in 2007 at a time when neither the Six Nations nor Tri Nations wanted to include them. After that World Cup, everything changed. The Pumas had finished higher than both the All Blacks and Wallabies...
Tonga would like to exert the same pressure to be included.
DO THEY HAVE ENOUGH PERSONNEL DEPTH?
They would like more, put it that way. They have a handful of durable, rugged forwards such as Sona Taumalolo, Joe Tuineau and Tevita Mailau and some good outside backs in Siale Piutau and Fetu’u Vainikolo. Taniela Moa can be brilliant at halfback when he’s fit and wasn’t that far away from being an All Black at one stage. But like quite a few teams, their problem is at No 10 where they don’t have a recognised, established world star.
CAN THEY COPE WITH THE PRESSURE?
Tonga have some history of being giant killers. They beat Scotland in Aberdeen in 2012 [is that giant killing?] and of course defeated France in Wellington at the last World Cup. That victory was perhaps the most telling of the Tongan mind set. They struggled at first to believe they were
dominating: it was as if they were waiting for the real France to turn up because they couldn’t believe it was so easy for them to win the ball and keep it.
But as the game developed, the Tongans grew in confidence and realised they were dominating because they were better. In the last five minutes, they even goaded the French – demanding they forfeit penalties for scrums such was the confidence in the Tongan set-piece. Bottom line – give Tonga a sniff and they will be dangerous.
WHERE ARE THEIR WEAKNESSES?
Bit like Samoa and Fiji, they have to worry about the off field stuff. Will the kit turn up, will there be water at training, will they be paid...etc. Their bigger weakness is that they may struggle to play the game at pace. Their pack is big and powerful but not particularly mobile. They also have a number of veteran performers who might struggle to play four fast games in four weeks. When Tonga played Scotland in November last year, they were in the contest for 65 minutes but wilted in the last 15 and enabled Scotland to enjoy space and time out wide.
WHAT ARE THEIR KEY STRENGTHS?
There will be considerable pride in the jersey and collective desire to harness. They have a good set-piece and plenty of ability around the tackled ball. Nili Latu is a brilliant openside who will scrap for everything and Taumalolo will find a way to burrow over from close range either from rucks or driving mauls. That explosive power in the ball carry and tackle is a genuine weapon that frightens plenty of teams.
WHAT POTENTIAL PROBLEMS COULD THEY INCUR?
Players falling out with management has been an issue in the past and unlike Samoa, not much has been done to fix the underlying issues in Tonga.
SAME AGAIN: Tonga played well against the All Blacks in 2011.
Above BIG PUNCH: Tonga will hit the fringes
Above Right NO PROBLEM: Tonga will win their ball
at set piece