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The builder who became a test-capped Super Rugby rookie in under a year

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Andrew Skinner / www.photosport.nz

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It was difficult to pick out many positive storylines when the All Blacks trounced Tonga 102-0 in their season-opening thrashing at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland last July.

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Against a vastly understrength ‘Ikale Tahi outfit, who were bereft of many of their professional players due to Covid-enforced travel restrictions and European club rugby commitments, the Kiwis ran in 17 tries in a mismatch of the highest degree.

The rout instigated discussions about World Rugby’s eligibility laws, which were changed later that year, and underlined the numerous difficulties Pacific Island nations face while trying to remain competitive on the international rugby scene.

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Nevertheless, in spite of the hiding they endured in trying circumstances, the pride the Tongan players had for representing their nation – 13 of whom were doing so for the first time – was one of the few positives to come out of the fixture.

Among those who donned the ‘Ikale Tahi jersey for the first time that night was hooker Sam Moli, who credits his time in the Tongan national squad as the spark that ignited his professional rugby career.

Prior to his international call-up, Moli was working as a builder and playing club rugby at grassroots level as he awaited the NPC season to kick-off with Tasman.

Since his NPC debut in 2017, the 23-year-old had played a bit-part role for the Mako, making just seven appearances over a span of four seasons.

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At that point in time, his playing career was limited to semi-professionalism as he held down his role as a tradesman over the provincial off-season.

That changed last year, though, when a fateful phone call from Tonga head coach and former Wallabies No 8 Toutai Kefu during a work shift kickstarted Moli’s rise from a tradie to a full-time Super Rugby player.

“That experience, it came out of the blue,” Moli, the younger brother of All Blacks prop Atu, told RugbyPass of his shock call-up to the ‘Ikale Tahi, which was unlikely to have happened had Tonga not been forced to dig so deep into their scarce pool of players.

“I was just on the tools, playing club rugby, waiting for the NPC to start, then this Australian number called me, and I was like, ‘Who’s this?’

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“He was like, ‘It’s Kefu’, and I said, ‘Eh?’ It was the coach for Tonga, so I said, ‘Jeepers’, but it was quite funny how it all happened.”

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As things transpired, Moli made his test debut for Tonga in their thumping at the hands of a full-strength All Blacks side in what was a harsh introduction to international rugby.

Of the nine debutants in Tonga’s starting lineup, Moli was one of the six newbies in the forward pack that featured players who had gone years without playing first-class playing rugby in New Zealand.

Loosehead prop Duke Nginingini, for instance, played the last of his four NPC matches for Waikato in 2017 when he was named to start against the All Blacks.

Likewise, lock Don Lolo’s only experience in first-class rugby came in the Heartland Championship, the amateur second-tier of New Zealand provincial rugby that he played three seasons of between 2014 and 2017.

Against an All Blacks side filled with stars from Super Rugby and Japanese club rugby, it’s little wonder that Tonga struggled to stop the floodgates from opening.

However, Moli acquitted himself well enough to earn a further two starts against Samoa and the Cook Islands in Tonga’s World Cup qualifiers in the weeks following the All Blacks test.

While Tonga only managed one win from their four tests throughout last July, Moli told RugbyPass that he “loved every part” of the test window as he “got to meet new people and learned heaps and got a taste of what international rugby was all about”.

He also attributes his time in the ‘Ikale Tahi camp as a life-changing experience that gave him the exposure required to earn his first-ever Super Rugby Pacific contract with Moana Pasifika.

Moli isn’t the only member of last July’s Tonga squad who is part of the expansion franchise, as he is joined at Moana Pasifika by Lolo, loose forward Solomone Funaki, utility forward Sione Tuipulotu and midfielder Fine Inisi.

As a full-time professional rugby player, Moli is relishing his new lifestyle after having swapped the worksite for the footy field, where he gets to train and play for a living.

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“I think going through that pathway [with Tonga], I think that’s what opened doors to Moana, and I’m really grateful for that experience for Tonga, and I think that’s really helped me get me to where I am today,” he said.

“Personally, for me, I think you kind of wake up grateful. It’s not having to wake up at 5am, make a coffee and go to work.

“You’re actually grateful that you get to come to work and you get to do something you love, rather than just being in a high-vis in the sun.”

Now in the midst of his first pre-season with Moana Pasifika, Moli is hopeful that his new role in a fully professional environment helps propel him towards further honours for Tonga, possibly alongside his older brother.

“I’ll definitely train real hard in this period of Super Rugby. I do have a goal. I still do want keep playing tests for Tonga, and the main goal is to try and make the World Cup in 2023,” he said.

Before then, though, Moli is determined to continue his rapid progression by engrossing himself in the Moana Pasifika set-up throughout the course of the upcoming season, which kicks-off for his side against the Blues on February 18.

“Probably getting myself to my best, and being able to perform at training, on the field, when the opportunity comes,” he said of what a successful debut Super Rugby Pacific season looks like for him.

“Just to be better, better myself around my knowledge of the game and hope to take that through to the NPC and just shoot off from there. At the moment, just try to soak up all the experience and knowledge.”

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