When Romania pitched up to face Ireland in Bordeaux last weekend, they had Fonovai Tangimana and Tevita Manumua in their ranks. A pair of Tongan-born backs who had sought pastures new and were now wearing the colours of their adopted nation.
Approximately 167,000 kilometres separates Nuku’alofa – the capital of Tonga – and Bucharest but travelling halfway around the global to earn a living is a well-worn path for a Pacific Islander.
In every professional – and semi-pro – rugby competition in the world, you will find Tongans plying their trade. This tiny country in the south Pacific may only have a population of 106,000 people but they have always punched above their weight on the biggest stage.
Power and size is rarely a problem for Tongans anyway. It’s their USP. Rugby is the country’s greatest export.
Almost every major rugby nation on the planet has boasted a player of Tongan heritage. From the Vunipola brothers with England to Wales and Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau.
Tonga will make their first appearance at the Rugby World Cup against Ireland on Saturday
Romania’s Fonovai Tangimana lined up against Ireland in the 82-8 win for Andy Farrell’s side
Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa – who both start for the Ikale Tahi in Nantes this evening – made big impressions during their time on Irish shores, when they lined out for Ulster and Munster respectively. Leva Fifita, who will pack down at lock for Tonga, played a few seasons at the Sportsground in Galway.
The great All Black Jonah Lomu was the son of Tongan immigrants from Ha’apai who sought a better life in Auckland.
Toutai Kefu, the current Tonga head coach who has his sights set on Ireland this evening, followed a similar path.
He was born in Kolomotu’a in his native Tonga before his family moved to Brisbane. Kefu, whose father Fatai represented Tonga in in the 1970s, would grow up and go on to represent the Wallabies, helping them claim the 1999 World Cup. He is still regarded as one of the greatest No8s ever to wear the green and gold jersey.
Rugby League is laced with powerful Tongans, from Wigan to Wellington. It’s the same story in the NFL in America. For a small country, Tonga produces an extraordinarily amount of talented rugby players.
Raw talent will get you so far at the top level, however. Tonga have always struggled to match the Tier 1 nations.
Once again, they are underdogs against a Six Nations powerhouse on the global stage. Kefu and Co are used to it anyway. In terms of resources, finances and logistics, the Pacific Island nations are always faced with an uphill battle.
There have been moments of defiance, however. The memory of a brilliant Tongan team shocking France at the 2011 World Cup in Wellington was as result which sent shockwaves around the globe.
Billy Vunipola and brother Mako are both veteran England international of Tongan heritage
Toutai Kefu was born in Tonga but his family moved to Australia – with whom he won the 1999 World Cup
Jonah Lomu – perhaps one of the greatest wingers in history – was the son of Tongan immigrants to New Zealand
Sukanaivalu Hufanga’s try and the boot of out-half Kurt Morath – who was playing for Clonakilty in the AIL at one point in a nomadic career – steered Tonga to a dramatic 19-14 win. A warning from history for Andy Farrell’s men right there.
Now, there is a feeling that Tonga might finally be realising their rich potential.
And the main reason was a landmark ruling from World Rugby – the game’s governing body – in November 2021. After intensive lobbying for many years, the eligibility laws were finally amended to allow players to switch allegiance on certain ground.
The like of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga had the most to gain from this decision. The All Blacks and Wallabies are laced with players who can trace their heritage back to the Pacific Islands.
Under the revised ruling, players are eligible to switch nations if they have been stood down for three years – in other words, not been selected for 36 consecutive months – and if they, or a parent or grandparent, were born in the country they wish to represent.
Joe Schmidt, in his short-lived role as director of rugby with World Rugby, was a big driver of the change behind the scenes, apparently.
Overnight, it opened up huge possibilities for smaller nations like Tonga. Suddenly, the playing pool expanded and a flurry of world class players became available for selection.
Piutau, who had 17 All Blacks caps but was no longer eligible for selection due to playing overseas with Bristol Bears, could be repatriated for Tonga, where he had strong family roots. It was the same story for ex-All Blacks like scrum-half Augustine Pulu, powerful No8 Vaea Fifita and midfielder Fekitoa. Indeed, they would have had another former All Black on board in George Moala but for a pre-tournament ban for a dangerous tackle in a pre-tournament game against Canada.
Controversial former Wallaby star Israel Folau was also poised to feature for Tonga before injury struck before the World Cup.
Joe Schimdt (right) coached Ireland for six years and was a big driver in the 2021 rule change
Still, the law change has significantly strengthened Tonga’s resources ahead of this tournament.
‘We’re going to have a really good team, probably the best ever,’ Kefu boldly stated last month.
When you look at the players at Kefu’s disposal, you can see why the Tonga supremo is so confident about his side’s chances against the world’s top-ranked team.
For one thing, their scrum looks imposing with the giant Bordeaux-Begles tighthead Ben Tameifuna at the vanguard of a frontrow which tips the scales at 387kgs.
Scarlets lock Sam Lousi has been a standout performer on the URC beat for the last few seasons while former Connacht lock Halaleva Fifita relishes the physical side of things.
The backrow of Stade Francais flanker Tanginoa Halaifonua, Moana Pasifika openside Sione Talitui and Vaea Fifita, the hard-running Scarlets No8 , packs a serious punch.
Pulu and William Havili are an effective half-back partnership while Toulouse centre Pita Ahki – one of Connacht – Fekitoa, Piutau and powerful wing Solomone Kata, who is linking up with Leicester Tigers next season complete a potent backline. Piutau, in particular, is the kind of player who can terrify defences with his footwork and acceleration. Any loose kicking to the Tonga full-back will be inviting trouble.
Crucially, they have an elite coaching team as well led, ably led by Kefu. Highly-experienced Kiwi Dan Cron – son of All Blacks scrum guru Mike – as well as former Munster out-half Tyler Blyendaal, who is coaching Tonga’s attack this tournament, have been getting this squad tuned up for the big stage in France.
‘We’re here to really fire some shots and try and knock over all of the teams in our pool,’ said Blyendaal, who spent five years at Thomond Park, on Friday.
‘That’s our attitude but we’re not delusional to the challenge we face, that’s for sure. We’re excited for the challenge.’
Tanginoa Halaifonua starts at flanker in a back row that packs some serious punch for Tonga
Underdogs as usual but there is a lot of excitement around the class of 2023. Perhaps there is a little bit of jitteriness in the Irish ranks as well? Especially after Farrell named a fully-loaded line-up to face a team ranked 15th in the world. The Ireland head coach is taking no chances against a team which is clearly on the rise.
Tonga are feeling confident ahead of the tournament bow as well, clearly.‘
We’re in a tough pool, but we’ll throw all our eggs in one basket and aim up against Ireland,’ Kefu said earlier this month. ’We can’t play footy with them; they’ll beat us every day of the week.
‘So we need to come up with a bit of a plan and I think we’ve got one… it’s going to be good.’