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How Vern Cotter plans to shut down Tonga's new superstar backline

By Chris Jones
(Photos / Getty Images)

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Vern Cotter has tasked his players with the daunting job of shutting down former Wallaby Israel Folau and ex-All Blacks Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau who will all be making their debuts for Tonga against hosts Fiji in the opening Pacific Nations Cup match in Suva on Saturday.

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The high profile trio have taken advantage of a change in World Rugby’s eligibility rules and their presence in the Tonga side is already attracting plenty of attention.

While Fekitoa, who won the last of his 24 All Blacks caps in 2017, and Piutau, who won his 17th and final All Blacks cap in 2015, have been impressing in the English Premiership for Wasps and Bristol respectively in recent seasons, Folau has been forced to play rugby league with the Catalan Dragons in France after his high profile sacking from the Australian Rugby Union for making anti-gay social media posts in 2019. He eventually settled his legal action against the Union out of court and is now four years since Folau won the last of his 73 caps for Australia against England.

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Despite all three players having been out of the test arena, Fiji head coach Cotter is wary of their potential impact in Tongan colours. He told Fiji Times: “We know those players have certain traits and we will look to shut them down in that area.

“Tonga is always physical so we need to be ready to face the one-on-one confrontations from the set-pieces. Our go forward is important and we need to dominate in that area.

“Folau is very good in the air depending on how we kick. Fekitoa has good feet in the midfield and we will have to keep an eye on him. We know how dangerous they are so we will focus more on our game in order to shut them out.”

Cotter can take heart from the arrival in Fiji of his overseas players for the tournament which is a key part of his build up to the Rugby World Cup in France next year. “As players come in, it will be a good time to test them and obviously prepare them for the November series and the Rugby World Cup,” added Cotter.

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“For the players that came in last week, we would like to give them an opportunity to see how they play. You will probably see a shift in our games and we have faith these players have what it takes to do the job.”

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