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Tonga to 'turn up the heat' on Ireland

INTERVIEW: Tongan fans “are getting warm” as the ‘Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) prepare for their World Cup opening match with world-ranked No.1 Ireland in Nantes on Saturday, said captain Sonatane Takulua.

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The 32-year-old scrumhalf knows this because they have apparently started the by-now familiar ritual of painting his name onto cars and property in his home village of Lapaha.

Whether there are any cars or houses left for his name to be painted on remains to be seen as they did this prior to the 2015 and 2019 editions.

“They were hot back then,” Takulua said on Tuesday.

“Then you know our people when they are hot they are hot but when they are cold they don’t know where they are at.

“But the feeling is coming back.

“Supporters in Tonga and all over the world are getting warm now as it is close to our first match and I think they are still doing that, painting the cars a lot,” he added grinning.

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Tonga have appeared at every World Cup apart from 1991 and recorded a famous pool win over eventual finalists France in 2011.

However, despite never reaching the knockout stages passion for the team and the sport remains high as assistant coach Zane Hilton discovered.

“There is great support in Tonga,” said the Australian.

“When we left there were individual floats for each player from their own village taking them to the airport.

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“It was like Carnival.

“To feel the support and love coming into this tournament was very moving for me.

“Heaven knows what it was like for you guys,” he added rubbing Takulua’s shoulder.

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‘Humility’

The Tongans have arguably their strongest squad this time round having been able under eligibility rules to select players with Tongan heritage who played for other countries.

Former New Zealand stars Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa are amongst those who now wear the red of Tonga.

However, Hilton says whilst they bring a lot to the squad in terms of top tier experience and skills the Tongans have not sacrificed their identity.

“We represent Tonga, we do it a Tongan way and that is a really important thing as a group,” said Hilton.

“They [the ones who played for other nations] bring excellence but we are ‘Ikale Tahi we do it our way.

“Sonatane has over 50 caps experience, which is the equivalent of 100 for a top tier nation which is some achievement, and that legacy is a really important part of this group.

“Those guys are very much about adding new ways of doing things but it is really important to keep that legacy of who we are, the ‘Ikale Tahi part.”

Hilton has coached in Australia and Japan but he says the Tongans have touched him in a way he has not experienced elsewhere due to one particular human quality.

“Humility, which I believe is an incredibly important part of Tongan culture,” said Hilton, who joins the Queensland Reds coaching staff after the tournament.

“For me this is the greatest coaching experience I have ever had and I have been lucky enough to have a number of jobs around the world.

“With them there is humility across the board and the whole group expresses itself.

“I feel like I take more from the experience than I give to the experience.

“I certainly get more out of it than I give.”

Takulua – labelled by Hilton as “an absolute warrior who leads from the front” – says the support they received on their departure “gave them a boost” to take into the Irish match.

Takulua also made a bold prediction.

“It was awesome going through all the villages to the airport,” he said.

“The record so far for a parade took four hours, we will beat that when we return after the World Cup.”

 

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