Rugby World Cup 2011

Lomu rates Tonga's chances

2011-08-19 10:51
Jonah Lomu (File)

Wellington - Tonga may have the honour of playing the opening match of the 2011 Rugby World Cup against hosts New Zealand, but their clash against France three weeks later is likely to be their most crucial.

With a win against the All Blacks unlikely, Tonga's hopes of progressing to the knockout rounds rest on winning their remaining Pool A games against Canada, Japan and then France.

"If we want to make the quarter-finals we have to win three games," says coach Isitolo Maka.

"What’s important is that we cannot just throw everything at New Zealand and then get bowled over."

Tonga, nicknamed the Ikale Tahi or Sea Eagles, have only 3 000 senior players to choose from yet have qualified for all the Rugby World Cup finals except 1991 and have developed a reputation for punching above their weight.

In 2007, they nearly defeated eventual champions South Africa, going down 30-25, and were then pipped for a place in the quarter-finals when they lost to England 36-20.

The strong showing from the tiny Pacific kingdom did not translate into offers to play the world's rugby elite, however, and for the past four years Tonga has relied largely on matches against second tier nations.

But Maka, a four-Test All Black in 1998, has declared himself satisfied with his side's build up for this World Cup although he does not have regular access to his leading players who ply their trade with professional sides in New Zealand, Australia and Europe

"In the past 20 months, between the Ikale Tahi and the Tonga A Teams, they have played about 30 games, and to me, that is good preparation for the boys," he said.

"We have played some very strong national teams such as Portugal, the French Barbarians, Italy and Japan, as well as challenging "A" teams, the likes of Scotland A and Ireland A."

The highlight for Tonga in their World Cup preparations came in July with their performance in the Pacific Nations Cup where they have traditionally finished last or second-to-last.

This year they opened the tournament with a 45-21 win over Fiji and beat fellow Pacific island neighbours Samoa 29-19 and their only loss was to tournament winners Japan by the narrowest of margins 28-27.

They were performances which pushed Tonga up to 12th in the world rankings although they have since slipped to 15th.

Tonga now rate this World Cup in New Zealand as their best chance to make the quarter-finals and legendary All Black Jonah Lomu, a Tongan, believes it is not beyond them.

"A lot of players are getting that experience and they’re going across to Europe and learning, refining their art and bringing it back and sharing it with the locals," Lomu said.

"It showed in the last World Cup and it’s going to show again at this because it’s going to be even more passionate for them because New Zealand is basically home for them because they have a lot of family there."

The Tongans enjoyment of the physical-contact nature of the game will be a bonus against Canada and after the Pacific Nations Cup loss they have the motivation to turn the tables on Japan.

If they achieve those two wins it will make their final Pool A match against France in Wellington on October 1 a crunch encounter with Maka ready to remind his team of the history between the two nations.

Tonga's most prized scalp came in 1999 when they beat the touring French side 20-16 in Nuku'alofa.


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