'I don't think they should go ahead': Sir John Kirwan reveals concerns over upcoming All Blacks tests
The two Pacific Island nations are scheduled to face the All Blacks in New Zealand between July 3 and July 17, but Kirwan told The Breakdown on Monday he fears the two touring teams will be greatly underprepared to face Ian Foster’s side.
The test will be Tonga’s first international rugby match since they defeated the United States at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
The Flying Fijians were scheduled to also play France, Italy and Scotland in that tournament, but were unable to as COVID-19 ravaged their squad.
The lack of tests played by Tonga and Fiji since the World Cup is a source of concern for Kirwan, as is the availability of their best players.
Many of Tonga’s and Fiji’s top players play their club rugby in Europe. The English and French club finals are scheduled for June 26, while the semi-finals and qualifying finals will be played in the weeks beforehand.
With the All Blacks scheduled to play Tonga on July 3, and then Fiji the following two weeks, most players from those countries involved in the Premiership and Top 14 play-offs are likely to be unavailable for selection due to travel and quarantine restrictions.
That could prevent Fiji’s World Cup stars – such as Semi Radradra (Bristol Bears), Josua Tuisova (Lyon), Peni Ravai and Peceli Yato (both Clermont), Waisea Naiyacalevu (Stade Francais), Levani Botia (La Rochelle), Tevita Cavubati (Harlequins) and Filipo Nakosi (Castres) – from playing the All Blacks.
Likewise for Tonga, Bristol Bears midfielder Siale Piutau, Bordeaux prop Ben Tameifuna, Stade Francais fullback Telusa Veainu, Castres No 8 Maama Vaipulu and Exeter Chiefs hooker Elvis Taione could all miss the trip to New Zealand depending on how their club seasons end.
The All Blacks, meanwhile, will have a full player pool to select from, with all of their players – bar Top League returnees Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and TJ Perenara – having endured two Super Rugby competitions alongside each other to ready themselves for Tonga and Fiji.
With the Pasifika nations likely to be undermanned with minimal time to prepare for the All Blacks, Kirwan said New Zealand-based players of Tongan and Fijian heritage should be allowed to play for those countries to help boost their playing stocks.
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The 63-test wing added those players should still be eligible to play for the All Blacks in the future because he believes that, without those players, Tonga and Fiji will struggle for competitiveness.
Such a move could see the likes of Sevu Reece, Hoskins Sotutu, Alex Hodgman, Salesi Rayasi, Pita Gus Sowakula, Jona Nareki, George Bower, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Manasa Mataele, Emoni Narawa, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Chay Fihaki turn out for Fiji.
Kiwi stars with Tongan heritage – such as Ngani Laumape, Ofa Tuungafasi, Shannon Frizell, David Havili, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Tupou Vaa’i, Vaea Fifita, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Sione Havili Talitui – would also be available for the ‘Ikale Tahi if Kirwan’s proposal is put into practice.
“I’m actually worried about those games. I don’t think they should go ahead unless we free the guys of Tongan and Fijian descent from here, and don’t ban them from playing [for the All Blacks] in the future, and their players from Europe,” Kirwan said.
Instead, the 56-year-old called for the return of the North vs South clash, which was played last year for the first time since 2012, or for a Possibles vs Probables match, which hasn’t been played since 2005.
“I’d rather see a North vs South or a Possibles vs Probables with Beauden at No 10 and Mo’unga the other No 10 and mix the two forward packs up. I’d go and see that game every day of the week.
“I want to see Pasifika rugby get the chance, but are they going to be prepared to be able to play a battle-hardened group of players that have just come off two amazingly difficult tournaments?
“That’s my biggest worry. It’s no use getting Richie Mo’unga out there against Fiji if we’re going to beat them by 60 or 70 or 80. We’re not going to learn anything, so that’s my biggest concern.”
Former All Blacks utility back Mils Muliaina supported Kirwan’s comments as he questioned how playing understrength teams would benefit the All Blacks.
“Labelling the association and players as greedy is facile and disingenuous.”
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“I’ll have to agree,” Muliaina told The Breakdown. “The fact is you’re not going to get the best players. They’ve got to come all the way from Europe. Will their clubs let them go? What do you get out of it?
“The fact is COVID is a massive thing, so we have to get some games or some test matches underway.
“What are the results going to be? They won’t be competitive at all, so where does that put the Pacific Island nations?”
Muliaina highlighted the Australian franchise’s winless start to Super Rugby Trans-Tasman as an example of how damaging it can be to play Kiwi sides after a prolonged period without having faced them.
“I know you’ve got to start somewhere, but look at where the Aussies have come in terms of Super Rugby Aotearoa compared to AU. We’re going to another level [of that by playing Tonga and Fiji].
“It’s a real concern to me, really.”
The All Blacks are scheduled to face Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium on July 3 before taking on Fiji at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on July 10 and at FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton on July 17.
Tonga will also play two World Cup qualifiers against Samoa in New Zealand on July 10 and July 17, with the second match to be a curtain raiser to the All Blacks-Fiji test in Hamilton.
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