The stage is set. Rugby’s worldwide fanbase draws teams from hats, excitedly reading the names of South Africa, New Zealand and England from the back of torn pieces of paper. With as many victories as there have been tournaments shared between the top-tier teams, fans are filled with hope that their draw will lead them to the podium as the World Cup kicks off this weekend. For the others, however, hope seems far out of reach. Tonga is one such unglamorous name.
With seven World Cups’ worth of experience under their belt, the Tongan assault has yet to breach the pool stages of the competition. Following a crushing 92-7 defeat to the All Blacks during warm-ups, severe concerns were voiced regarding the readiness of the Island Side. The 77th minute saw a revival of spirit as Siale Piutau traversed the New Zealand defence to coax the scoreboard from nought, but as the final seconds passed, it became clear that spirit is not an adequate substitute for a game plan. Tonga cannot be carried to victory by pluck alone.
It seems unfair, however, to judge Tonga merely on their performance against the current World Cup champions. Historically, the side has caused serious ripples on the international stage. 2012 saw Scotland suffer a 21-15 defeat against a Tongan front whose rogue physicality proved too much, securing three seats in the bin in the process.
Looking further back, Tonga produced the upset of the 2011 World Cup by beating France, bolstering their standing in the international rugby community. This emotionally-battered French team went on to face New-Zealand in the final, demonstrating the capability of a Tongan side firing on all cylinders. All of this from a squad who, as reported by the New Zealand media, have at times paid for their own strapping tape and extra baggage when attending international events.
For all its material disadvantages, the nation with a population less than Exeter boasts that one in five of its males are registered with the Tongan Rugby Union. It comes as no surprise therefore that the sport, embraced by the Pasifika, discovers and develops great players.
A cheetah in the long grass, Leicester’s fullback Telusa Veainu carries himself effortlessly through a defensive fifteen. His balletic twists and turns leave players in awe of his improvisational ability on the pitch. His play demands as much attention from his opposition as is given him by his audience.
As a ‘testament to the talent identification’ of the Pacific Island combine scheme, Scott Wisemantel notes the success of James Faiva, who recently received a Mitre 10 contract. Faiva will make his international debut in Japan, representing the reach of World Rugby and its importance in tier two nations.
Embodying courage and strength, Nasi Manu should walk into this tournament fearless. After enduring months of chemotherapy, the 31-year-old has been cleared to play. Speaking to RWC Manu said ‘that to win you have to go through the heart’.
Tonga’s campaign in this World Cup may not exceed the humble expectations of most onlookers. Yet they are taking far more than 31 men to Japan this autumn.
They represent a community that challenges adversities, both systematic and natural. When Tonga’s players step onto the Sapporo pitch to play England, whilst only 15 pairs of boots will touch the ground, on their shoulders rests an entire nation.
Image: Craig Boyd via Wikimedia