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Moana Pasifika rookie targets Tonga selection alongside former test stars

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Jeremy Ward / www.photosport.nz

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He may be in contention with the likes of Israel Folau and Charles Piutau for Tonga selection, but that hasn’t dismayed William Havili from dreaming big in the test arena.

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For the first time since World Rugby’s new eligibility rules, ‘Ikale Tahi head coach Toutai Kefu will name his squad for their upcoming Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup qualification campaigns on Friday.

Under World Rugby’s amended laws, an array of former tests stars who have been absent from the international game for at least three years have, or will soon, become eligible for nations that they qualify to play for via birthright.

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As such, Kefu’s squad is set to be headlined by Folau, Piutau and former All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa, while others such as Vaea Fifita, Sekope Kepu, Adam Coleman and Atu Moli will become eligible later this year.

The inclusion of any, or all, of those players in the Tongan set-up has been a significant point of discussion in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup in France, where the ‘Ikale Tahi may have the talent to challenge quarter-final berth.

Flying under the radar, though, is Havili, the Super Rugby Pacific rookie who has flourished as a key member of the Moana Pasifika squad in their maiden season in the competition.

Recruited by head coach Aaron Mauger on the back of only a handful of NPC appearances for Tasman, Havili has become a regular for Moana Pasifika, starting in nine of their 13 matches and making one further outing off the bench.

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Havili’s performances in those matches has piqued Kefu’s interest, to the point where the Tonga boss has been in contact with the 23-year-old about a potential test debut in the foreseeable future.

That would be quite the rise for Havili, the younger brother of All Blacks and Crusaders midfielder David, who didn’t anticipate much game time in his debut season as a full-time professional rugby player for Moana Pasifika.

“I didn’t expect to be getting starts week-in, week-out,” Havili said after Moana Pasifika’s 48-28 loss to the Western Force at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on Tuesday.

“I was just eager to learn because I hadn’t played much [NPC] and I was just really looking to put my best foot forward in pre-season.”

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He has done exactly that, firstly resulting in a strong impression on Mauger which has now extended to Kefu, who linked up with the Moana Pasifika squad ahead of their match against the Reds in Brisbane last week.

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While surveying the Tongan contingent in Mauger’s squad, Kefu spoke to Havili about his prospects of selection for the ‘Ikale Tahi.

Pleased with his development in Super Rugby Pacific, Havili revealed that Kefu may look to use him as a first-five for Tonga.

Although he has played primarily at fullback for Moana Pasifika, first-five is Havili’s favoured position, which bodes well for ‘Ikale Tahi selection, especially with either Folau or Piutau expected to dominate Tonga’s No 15 jersey.

“It wasn’t too long, he was just happy with my progress at Super level because he hadn’t seen a bit of me,” Havili said of the discussions he had with Kefu in Brisbane.

“I was talking to him at the start of the year, and he just wanted to see my game evolve. He’s really happy with the improvements I’ve had.

“We’ve been talking about a bit more of a 10 role if I do get selected, so I’ll also be happy if I do get selected for that.

“I’d be extremely proud. Looking forward, if I get selected for 10, that’s probably where my main position lies later on in my future. I’m really eager to get to run a team and having it under me.”

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Given Tonga will be better-stocked at fullback compared to first-five, Kefu’s eagerness to play Havili at No 10 should bolster his selection chances in the face of competition from experienced playmakers James Faiva and Kurt Morath.

Should he be named in Kefu’s squad on Friday, Havili would be one step closer to realising his dream of representing his Tongan heritage, which would come against either Fiji, Samoa or Australia A in the Pacific Nations Cup in July.

That would be followed by a World Cup play-off against either Hong Kong, South Korea or Malaysia in Australia as Tonga look to cement their place alongside South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania in Pool B next year.

Playing at the World Cup, as well as returning to Moana Pasifika for their sophomore year in Super Rugby Pacific, are two further goals Havili is aiming to tick off as he ventures past the infancy of his professional rugby career.

“I’ve got one more year,” Havili said of his current contract status with Moana Pasifika.

“I’d like to stick around in New Zealand for a bit longer as well, so if the opportunity does come after next year, there is something there with Moana again, I’d be really keen to stay around, but also just looking to build.

“Hopefully Tongan selection, World Cup, stuff like that is a big dream of mine.”

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