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Tonga coach pleads for more Tier One matches

OPINION: Winless Tonga will bow out of the World Cup hopeful of a victory in their final Pool B match against Romania as coach Toutai Kefu pleaded for more competition against tier-one nations.

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The Tongans, bolstered by the inclusion of former All Blacks such as Charles Piutau, Augustine Pulu and Malakai Fekitoa, as well as ex-Wallaby Adam Coleman, have suffered three heavy defeats in their opening games in France.

After losing 59-16 to world number one ranked side Ireland, they went down to a 45-17 loss to Scotland, ranked fifth, before running out of steam in a 49-18 defeat by defending champions South Africa in Marseille on Sunday.

“We’re tracking in the right way, which means we’ll have our best game next week, and then the tour’s over!” said Kefu, who was part of the Australia squad that won the 1999 World Cup.

“It happens every campaign. We go on three, four-week campaigns. The last game’s always our best game because we’ve had more time together and we’ve played some opposition.”

Kefu said the change in eligibility rules had opened an interesting door to sourcing new talent.

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“We need time to really blend. I’ve got players coming from 20-plus programmes,” the former backrow forward said.

“I think Ireland, 90 percent of their players come from one programme. New Zealand, they come from five or six programmes.

“A third of my group play in France, a third play in the UK, the other third play in New Zealand – although a couple in Japan.

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“It just makes sense that it’s going to take longer for us to get on the same page.”

Turning to the loss to the Springboks, Kefu bemoaned a couple of opportunistic moments that led to tries for South Africa.

“There were three or four turnovers that led to their tries,” he said. “They’re tier-two mistakes. Spending more time together will fix that up, I believe.

“Getting more regular competition will fix that up.”

– Right direction –

Tonga have won six games against Tier 1 nations, the first coming against Australia back in 1973.

More recently, they have beaten Italy and Scotland, but undoubtedly their most prized scalp was that of France in the pool stages of the 2011 World Cup.

But shockingly, since the 2019 World Cup in Japan, they have played just three tier-one nations: they lost 102-0 to New Zealand in 2021, the same year they also suffered heavy defeats by England (69-3) and Scotland (60-14) in November internationals.

Lock forward Coleman, son of former Tongan captain Pau’u Lolohea-Afeaki, won 38 caps for Australia before switching allegiance.

And he was in no doubt how Tonga could become more competitive.

“We need more tier-one games,” the 31-year-old said. “The game against the Boks was pretty close. I don’t think the scoreboard did us justice.

“They had a few tries that were quick-tap when we switched off. That’s 14 points there.”

Coleman also encouraged players to explore eligibility through ancestry.

“With this new rule, you don’t have international players sitting on the sidelines,” he said.

“You want the best playing on the world stage in the World Cup. I’d really recommend it if you have that opportunity to represent your heritage.

“My old man played for Tonga, my uncles and my cousins, there’s a big blood line there.”

Coleman highlighted his Tonga debut against Scotland as his stand-out moment.

“It hit different. It was like a full-circle moment. My old man played for Tonga and now my kids were on the pitch with me,” he said.

“It was a different feeling from the 2019 World Cup,” when he played for the Wallabies.

Centre Fekitoa, who won 24 caps for the All Blacks and has pursued a club career that has seen him star in Super Rugby before going on to Wasps, Toulon and Munster, said he hoped he had offered something to the squad.

“I’ve been around the game and I’ve led with how I prepare and how I train,” he said.

“Hopefully some of the younger boys will watch that and it will help their game, and we’ve put a foundation in that will help the team – how we prepare and how we go against the big teams.

“I feel we are heading in the right direction.”

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