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Laumape the latest ex-All Black to commit to Tonga

By Jon Newcombe
Ngani Laumape is seen as the biggest casualty after the All Blacks announced their RWC squad

Assistant coach Nili Latu has revealed that former All Blacks star Ngani Laumape has made himself available to Tonga ahead of the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup in August and September.

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Laumape, whose parents are from Tonga, first declared his interest in playing for the ‘Ikale Tahi when World Rugby introduced the birthright ruling in 2021 and he has been eligible since November last year.

Unlike the five other ex-All Blacks in the squad, the centre’s three-year stand-down period hadn’t quite run its course in time for him to be considered for Rugby World Cup 2023 selection.

But the Kobelco Kobe Steelers star, who won the last of his 15 All Blacks caps in November 2020, is now free to become a dual international and has put his hand up for selection under the new management team of Tevita Tu’ifua and Nili Latu.

The prospect of Laumape lining up in Tonga’s midfield alongside another ex-All Black in Malakai Fekitoa is one to excite Tonga fans ahead of a busier-than-normal year of Test rugby.

Tonga have two additional Tests against Italy and Spain as well as a match against Queensland Reds in Tonga before competing in the revamped Pacific Nations Cup, which gets underway on August 23.

Meanwhile, Israel Folau is still keen on playing for Tonga having returned to action after a nine-month injury lay-off.

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The former 74-cap Wallaby scored four minutes into his comeback match for Urayasu D-Rocks in Japan League One at the end of March and is hoping to add to the one Tonga cap he won back in July 2022.

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Folau is now 35, Fekitoa is 32 and Laumape turns 31 later this month, so the next Rugby World Cup in 2027 could be beyond all three players.

Nili Latu, Tonga’s new assistant coach, has recognised that the age profile of the squad needs addressing and has been given a player pathway manager role in addition to being new head coach Tevita Tu’ifua’s number two.

Latu was in Apia on Monday to see Tonga A play Manuma Samoa in the World Rugby Pacific Challenge in the hope of identifying new Test players, although it is debatable whether he will have found that many positives from the 56-17 defeat.

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The raw talent is there in Tonga and in the huge ex-pat population in New Zealand, but Latu wants to ensure it is harnessed in the right way for the benefit of the Moana Pasifika Super Rugby team and, ultimately, the national side.

“Our priority now is to qualify for the World Cup so there is still a use for those players and bringing their leadership into the group. And at the same time, we have got guys like Ngani Laumape, who has put his hand up to come in,” he revealed.

“Over 80% of the World Cup squad are over 30 and as we’re looking to build some of those players may give us a year or two.

“I think it is really important that we do keep some high-profile players to lead the way for the next generation. A few of the boys have already asked for time off for family reasons and, for me that gives opportunity for the next person.”

Latu, who was brought up in Tonga by his grandparents before emigrating to New Zealand, says a union-backed high performance academy in Auckland will be set up with hubs planned elsewhere, in Australia and back in the homeland.

“We never run out of stock but it is finding our way and setting up a system that means we can keep our players in the islands,” he said.

“I think it is brilliant to have Moana in New Zealand now and we are looking to set up a High Performance Academy for first the time.

“We understand there is a lot of hard work to be done because it has never been done before, but that is the only way to sustain our players and realign everything.

“For us to be strong and sustainable we need to start building from the ground up, from the grassroots. It is about creating a pathway and hopefully, we can get the ball rolling as soon as possible.”

Latu knows from first-hand experience how natural talent has not always been harnessed the right way, with a lack of direction and resources preventing Tonga from fulfilling their potential.

Tonga’s record caps holder until Sonatane Takulua overtook him recalls how the team roughed it in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2007 in France whilst they were staying in a budget hotel in England on the eve of the tournament.

“It was four to a room but in ours, it felt like five because we had two of the props, including Taufa’ao Filise.

“There were 45 of us in the squad and after every training session in the parking lot, a truck would turn up with a whole cooked chicken for each of us. As players, we were on about €80/week until Epi Taione got in touch with his mate, Paddy Power, and they topped it up after he agreed to change his name to Paddy Power and dye his hair green! That’s how we prepared for the World Cup. People don’t realise what we went through.”

Latu, who won 48 caps for Tonga, wants more for the players playing under him and cites a lack of support in the right areas as the reason why a squad containing players of the calibre of RWC 2015 winner Fekitoa and Charles Piutau, Vaea Fifita, Augustine Pulu, Ben Tameifuna and Adam Coleman failed to win more than one game.

“If you look at the World Cup team it is are probably the best team Tonga has ever put out at a World Cup but they never came through and it was through those issues that we never got to see their potential. Hopefully, we won’t go down the same path.

“On our day, we can win games that nobody gives us a chance in.”

As a hard-tackling, hard-running back-row forward in Super Rugby with the Hurricanes and the Chiefs in Super Rugby and then at Newcastle in the Gallagher Premiership, Latu never saw any obstacle as insurmountable.

This never-give-up attitude has carried over into his coaching and in just over four years he has risen up to Test rugby via stints as head coach at Auckland Premier side Papatoetoe and Marist North Harbour in New Zealand and as an assistant coach of the Moana Pasifika. Latu was also head coach of the Tonga women’s national team during the 2023 Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship.

“What I love about the job is that I am learning every day and that brings an edge to the way I coach and understand the game,” he said.

“I never thought I would get into the position I am in today through rugby. I never give up, I find ways of getting things done. That never-give-up attitude was implanted into me quite early.”

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