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'A few weeks ago, I was in the smoko room': The 9-5 workers set to debut for Tonga against All Blacks

By Sam Smith

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As COVID-19 continues to cause disruptions worldwide, lower-level international rugby sides are feeling the implications of the pandemic more than the game’s powerhouses.

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While the likes of the All Blacks have virtually full access to their best players, most of whom are based in New Zealand, minnow nations set to play in next month’s test window have had their resources stretched as a result of the virus.

Take Tonga for example. ‘Ikale Tahi are preparing to take on the All Blacks in Auckland on Saturday in what will be their first test since the 2019 World Cup.

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Without a number of their top European-based players, who were unable to travel to New Zealand amid global travel restrictions, ‘Ikale Tahi head coach Toutai Kefu has been forced to dig deep to find replacement players for this weekend’s match.

That has led the ex-Wallabies loose forward to call-up numerous uncapped rookies who have been plying their trade at grassroots level in New Zealand.

Unlike the All Blacks, whose players are all battle-hardened after their Super Rugby and Top League campaigns, some of Tonga’s players are heading into their first-ever test match after spending the first part of this year working normal 9-5 jobs.

Uncapped lock Harrison Mataele is one of those players. A personal trainer by trade, the 27-year-old is in just his second season back playing for Grammar TEC in Auckland’s club competition after quitting rugby due to injuries.

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“It is a lot to take in,” Mataele told 1 News. “A few weeks ago, I was in the smoko room eating mi-goreng, now I’m eating good food, getting my nutrients in.”

Rookie hooker Sam Moli, the younger brother of four-test All Blacks prop Atu, was called into the squad in similarly unexpected circumstances.

“I was on the tools and got a Tongan number call me, picked it up and Toutai [Kefu] was like, ‘Sam, do you want to play for ‘Ikale?’, and I was like, ‘What?’,” Moli, who has played provincial rugby for Tasman, told 1 News.

Together, Mataele and Moli are two of 15 debutants in the ‘Ikale Tahi squad tasked with squaring off against the All Blacks at Mt Smart Stadium before going into a two-match World Cup qualifier series against Manu Samoa.

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Of the 30 players in Kefu’s squad, 22 are based in New Zealand and many haven’t been exposed to first-class rugby of any kind.

Mataele fits that bill, as does his Grammar TEC teammate Jay Fonokalafi, Alhambra Union outside back John Tapueluelu and Takapuna halfback Aisea Halo.

Others have only a handful of appearances for provincial unions such as Counties Manukau, North Harbour, Manawatu, Tasman, Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Southland across multiple NPC campaigns.

Furthermore, uncapped lock Don Lolo, who turns out for Taieri in the Dunedin club competition, has only played in the Heartland Championship for North Otago and South Canterbury, with his last outing in the amateur provincial competition coming four years ago.

All of this reflects how under-resourced Tonga is ahead of their clash with the All Blacks, especially with recently-converted Tongan sevens internationals Malakai Fekitoa, Lopeti Timani and Afusipa Taumoepeau all stuck in Europe after last week’s Olympic Qualification Tournament in Monaco.

However, ‘Ikale Tahi will have a few seasoned professionals in their ranks for their upcoming tests, like Toulon halfback Sonatane Takulua – who paid for his own flights to New Zealand from France – and Bordeaux prop Ben Tameifuna.

Former Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu, well-travelled wing Nafi Tuitavake and prolific former Sunwolves wing Hosea Saumaki are also part of the squad, but just how competitive Tonga will be against the All Blacks will become clear on Saturday.

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'A few weeks ago, I was in the smoko room': The 9-5 workers set to debut for Tonga against All Blacks

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