Tonga's World Cup team under new eligibility laws
OPINION: A look at World Rugby’s refreshed eligibility laws impact on tier two nations.
The two countries with the most to gain from the amended laws are Samoa and Tonga as both nations have a plethora of star players who have now, or will at some stage, become available to play for their Pacific Island teams.
Some of those players will be available to play for those countries immediately, while others will become eligible in the lead-up to the 2023 World Cup in France.
With that in mind, here is a potential match day squad Tonga could roll out against the likes of South Africa, Ireland and Scotland in Pool B – should they qualify in the Asia/Pacific slot – at the sport’s biggest tournament in two years’ time.
1. Atu Moli
A highly-touted prospect, Atu Moli made his test debut for the All Blacks against Argentina in 2019, and played twice at that year’s World Cup in Japan. Injuries, however, have hampered the 26-year-old Chiefs prop’s progression. With the last of Moli’s four tests coming in the World Cup bronze final, he will become eligible for Tonga next November, unless he is picked by the All Blacks again in 2022. Moli earns selection over England star Mako Vunipola, who, as it stands, won’t be available for Tonga until August 2024.
2. Paul Ngauamo
A long-serving veteran of the ‘Ikale Tahi, Paul Ngauamo has established himself as Tonga’s first-choice hooker since his test debut in 2014. In the years since, the 31-year-old Castres rake has played 23 tests and attended two World Cups for Tonga.
3. Sekope Kepu
With 110 tests, three World Cups and a 2014 Super Rugby title to his name, former Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu would be a significant gain for Tonga if he decides to jump ship. At 35-years-old, the newly-signed Moana Pasifika prop will become eligible for ‘Ikale Tahi next October, three years after he last played for the Wallabies in their World Cup quarter-final loss to England.
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4. Adam Coleman
Another former Wallabies stalwart, Adam Coleman is the son of former Tonga captain Pau’u Lolohea-Afeaki and would add serious height and experience to the ‘Ikale Tahi pack. Standing at 2.04m and 122kg, the 30-year-old London Irish lock will be free for selection next October after playing his 38th and final Wallabies test in Australia’s 2019 World Cup quarter-final defeat.
5. Sam Lousi
Formerly of the Waratahs and Hurricanes, and the Warriors in the NRL, 30-year-old Scarlets lock Sam Lousi has forged out a credible rugby union career since crossing codes in 2015. That career includes eight tests and a 2019 World Cup appearance for Tonga.
6. Vaea Fifita
After arriving in New Zealand as a schoolboy, Tongan-born utility forward Vaea Fifita climbed through the ranks to win a Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes and earn 11 test caps for the All Blacks. The last of those came against the Springboks during the 2019 Rugby Championship, meaning the 29-year-old Wasps star will be eligible for the ‘Ikale Tahi next July.
7. Colby Fainga’a
The younger brother of ex-Wallabies twins Saia and Anthony, Colby Fainga’a has never taken to the field for Australia in the test arena, despite being called into Dave Rennie’s squad for their recent end-of-year tour. As such, the 30-year-old Lyon flank is currently available to play for Tonga.
8. Lopeti Timani
Born and raised in Tonga, Lopeti Timani made his named in Australian rugby, earning 12 tests for the Wallabies between 2016 and 2017. However, the 31-year-old Toulon utility forward switched his international allegiance to Tonga via the Olympic sevens loophole – becoming one of the last players to do so – in July and made his ‘Ikale Tahi debut against England three weeks ago. Timani earns selection over England star Billy Vunipola, who, as it stands, won’t be available for Tonga until August 2024.
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9. Augustine Pulu
After breaking through into the All Blacks set-up to play two tests in 2014, Augustine Pulu was never called on by New Zealand thereafter. As such, the 31-year-old Hino Red Dolphins halfback will be eligible to play for Tonga when the team next plays.
10. James Faiva
Based in Italy with domestic side Petrarca, James Faiva has become a regular for Tonga since making his test debut against Samoa in 2019. That year, the 27-year-old pivot made four appearances at the World Cup and has a total of 15 tests to his name.
11. Solomone Kata
A star for the Warriors in the NRL between 2015 and 2019, Solomone Kata crossed codes to join the Brumbies last year. The 26-year-old flourished in the XV-man game and went on to play his first two tests for Tonga earlier this month. After having also played for Tonga and the Kiwis in international rugby league, as well as Auckland in the NPC, Kata has signed with Moana Pasifika for next year.
12. George Moala
Given former All Blacks star Ngani Laumape played his last test for the All Blacks on November 7 last year, he won’t become eligible for Tonga until just days after the 2023 World Cup final. That means his fellow ex-New Zealand international George Moala takes the No 12 jersey. The four-test Clermont utility back, now aged 31, hasn’t played for the All Blacks since 2016, making him eligible to play for Tonga during the next test window.
13. Malakai Fekitoa
Like Timani, ex-All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa, a 24-test World Cup winner and 2015 Super Rugby champion, changed international allegiance from New Zealand to Tonga, where he was born and raised, through the Olympic sevens loophole in July. Had the 29-year-old Wasps star not been injured, he would have played for the ‘Ikale Tahi during this month’s test window.
14. Israel Folau
Controversial former Wallabies star Israel Folau looks set to return to test rugby with Tonga after his high-profile sacking from Rugby Australia in 2019. Since then, the 32-year-old utility back returned to rugby league in Europe, but is back in union after signing with the Shining Arcs in Japan, paving the way him to add to his 73 test caps as early as next July.
15. Charles Piutau
Regarded as the world’s equal-highest paid player, Charles Piutau is primed to finally return to test rugby following a six-year absence after he walked away from the All Blacks in 2015. The 30-year-old Bristol Bears utility back has gone on to become a star of European club rugby and will help create an all-star ‘Ikale Tahi backline.
16. Sam Moli
The younger brother of Atu, Sam Moli made his test debut for Tonga against the All Blacks earlier this year and made further two appearances against Samoa and the Cook Islands in July. The 22-year-old rake has signed for Moana Pasifika next year.
17. Loni Uhila
A title-winning cult hero for the Hurricanes during his two-season spell at the Wellington-based Super Rugby franchise between 2016 and 2017, Loni Uhila made his international debut against Scotland last month. The 32-year-old Hyeres prop also featured against England three weeks ago.
18. Ben Tameifuna
Weighing in at 148kg, Ben Tameifuna has been a Tongan international for four years now after missing out on an All Blacks cap despite being part of their mid-year squad in 2012. The 30-year-old Bordeaux prop now has 18 tests for Tonga and played for the Pacific Island nation at the 2019 World Cup.
19. Sitaleki Timani
Eight years after playing the last of his 18 tests for the Wallabies, Sitaleki Timani was called into Dave Rennie’s Australian squad for their series against France in July. However, the 35-year-old Western Force lock never took to the field, meaning he will still be eligible for the nation of his birth when the next Tongan squad is selected.
20. Nasi Manu
An inspirational leader both on and off the field over the past six years, Nasi Manu successfully fought off a testicular cancer diagnosis to play for Tonga at the 2019 World Cup. In total, the 33-year-old Hino Red Dolphins No 8, who co-captained the Highlanders to their first-ever Super Rugby title in 2015, has nine test caps to his name.
21. Sonatane Takulua
Current ‘Ikale Tahi captain Sonatane Takulua has been one of the standouts for Tonga in recent times after debuting for his homeland in 2014. Since then, the 30-year-old Toulon halfback has racked up 45 test matches and attended two World Cups.
22. Kurt Morath
A bona fide veteran of Tongan rugby, Kurt Morath made his test debut for the ‘Ikale Tahi way back in 2009. The 37-year-old Austin Gilgronis first-five has since made 40 test appearances and has played at three World Cups.
23. Telusa Veainu
He could certainly have made the starting team, but Telusa Veainu beats out Leicester Tigers wing Hosea Saumaki for a place on this bench. The 30-year-old Stade Francais outside back has gone on to make 13 test appearances for Tonga and played at the last two World Cups.
By Alex McLeod, Rugbypass