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'I'd give it a crack': Kiwi wing keen to play for Tonga and Moana Pasifika

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

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Former Blues, Highlanders and New Zealand age-grade star Tevita Li has revealed he is open to playing for Tonga in test rugby, as well as Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby Pacific.

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Speaking to media on a conference call from Japan earlier this week, the Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath wing said he is keen to represent his nation of heritage following World Rugby’s change of eligibility laws this year.

The game’s global governing body last year voted in favour of allowing test-capped players to switch allegiance from one country to another following a three-year stand down period from international rugby.

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Players can only change allegiance once, and they are only eligible to play for a second country provided that they were born there, or that their parents or grandparents were born there.

The change in ruling has opened the door for an array of internationally-capped stars of Pacific Island descent who have played for tier one nations to now represents countries such as Samoa and Tonga.

Although he hasn’t played test rugby, Li said he is eager to play for Tonga now that the ‘Ikale Tahi are set to have the likes of Israel Folau, Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa, among others, available ahead of next year’s World Cup in France.

“I think, especially with these eligibility rules changing last year, or this year, all the world-class players that can play now, I think it’s really attracting a lot of players like myself,” Li said when asked whether he would play for Tonga.

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“I think, in the long run, it’s going to attract a younger generation coming up. I’m pretty much Tongan, so if I had the opportunity, I’d give it a crack.”

Li’s admission of interest in playing for Tonga comes in stark contrast to comments he made early last year, when he said in an interview with Suntory that it is a goal of his to play internationally for Japan.

Under World Rugby’s current laws, players can qualify for a country they are otherwise ineligible to represent on residency grounds if they live in their adopted nation for five continuous years after they turn 18.

After having moved to Suntory ahead of the 2020 Top League season, Li wouldn’t be eligible to represent the Brave Blossoms until 2025, but said last February that he is aiming to play for Japan at the 2027 World Cup.

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“I would like to play for Suntory for as long as possible, and I would also like to play for Japan national rugby team,” Li told the Suntory website when asked what his future plans entail.

“I am not yet eligible for the next Rugby World Cup (2023), so I am aiming for the Rugby World Cup after that (2027).”

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However, those comments were made before World Rugby’s change of eligibility laws were announced last November and came into effect in January.

It is apparent those new rules, and the subsequent influx of star power set to grace the Tongan squad, have since swayed Li’s test rugby aspirations, which seemingly now lie with the ‘Ikale Tahi.

Li would be a valued addition to the Tongan set-up given his impressive try-scoring rate in Japan’s League One competition since joining Suntory from the Highlanders.

The 27-year-old has crossed for an eye-catching 25 tries from only 19 matches upon his arrival in Japan, scoring nine tries in seven outings this season alone.

Li’s try-scoring prowess made him a teenage star almost a decade ago, when he debuted for North Harbour in the 2013 ITM Cup, now known as the NPC, as an 18-year-old student at Massey High School.

Earlier that year, he debuted for the Blues in a one-off match against France before making his first appearance in Super Rugby for the Auckland-based franchise in 2014 – the same year of which he first turned out for the New Zealand U20 side.

During his two seasons with the national youth team, Li scored 13 tries in 10 matches, becoming the highest try-scorer in World Rugby U20 Championship history as the Baby Blacks won the world title in 2015.

Although he struggled to replicate that try-scoring record in Super Rugby with the Blues and Highlanders – scoring a collective total of 19 tries in 66 matches – Li continued to shine for North Harbour, dotting down 36 times in 55 outings.

Li added that he is open to a return to the revamped Super Rugby Pacific following the admission of Moana Pasifika into the new-look competition.

Moana Pasifika are one of two Pacific Island franchises, alongside the Fijian Drua, that have debuted in the league this season, and Li refused to rule out the prospect of signing for the rookie side in the coming years.

“I think it’s a real good inclusion for them, especially being Tongan myself, and if there’s an opportunity one day to go back home for Moana Pasifika, I wouldn’t mind doing that,” Li said.

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“It’s going to take a while for them to grow as a team to be successful, but I think the seed’s planted. They’re in the competition and they’ve had a good few games. Obviously they beat the Hurricanes last week, which was massive.

“You could see all the support from the fans, all the Island community just supporting them and giving them that motivation for the young kids coming through that it’s not only the big Super Rugby teams that you can play for.

“You can also play for a team that is coming up, and I’m sure that they’re getting all that motivation from them as well.”

Li’s expression of interest was warmly received by Moana Pasifika head coach Aaron Mauger, who coached the speedster while the pair were at the Highlanders between 2018 and 2019.

“That’s great to hear,” Mauger said ahead of his return to Dunedin to face the Highlanders in a bottom-of-the-table clash on Friday.

“It’s certainly what we aspire to do – connect all of our rugby community, and wider Pasifika community, to what we’re about.

“Your players are normally your best recruitment agents because they’re enjoying it, so obviously the good word is spreading and people are starting to get an understanding of what we’re about.

“As a family, as a club first, and as a footy team, I think we’ve really nailed that part of who we want to be and what we aspire to be, so it’s great to hear guys like Tevita are showing an interest.”

In saying that, Mauger said Li wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting role if he was to join the Moana Pasifika set-up in future.

“A lot of competition here. We’ve got some pretty sharp wingers at the moment, and they’re all in good form. It’s hard enough to try and pick the five that we’ve got, so we’ll focus on this group first.”

Li will start on the left wing for the table-topping Suntory this weekend when they face the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka in Tokyo on Saturday.

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