Sonatane Takulua is relishing the challenge of proving Newcastle are now a major Premiership force and Tonga can become giant killers at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan when they will face England, France, Argentina and USA.
The talented scrum-half helped Newcastle into the Premiership play-off semi-finals for the first time with a fourth-place finish last season and then provided 13 points with the boot as Tonga defeated Samoa 28-18 and another 12 in the 27-19 win over Fiji in June.
With another Premiership campaign with Newcastle about to kick off and Tests against Wales and possibly Georgia in November, Takulua has a busy schedule leading up to the opening Pool C World Cup match with England on September 22 next year at the Sapporo Dome.
His pride at representing the national team is clearly shown in the eye-catching tattoo Takulua had put onto the front of his right shin which is the coat of arms of Tonga.
It could be seen as a very visible good luck charm as it is his kicking leg, the one that has given Tonga and Newcastle a reliable kicker at both international and Premiership levels. Given that Tonga is not renowned for producing kickers, Takulua’s willingness to take on the responsibility has been a relief for everyone involved in the national side. So far, he has kicked 27 penalties and 21 conversions while also scoring eight tries, collecting 163 points in 28 appearances for his country.
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For Newcastle, the club that gave the world Jonny Wilkinson, Takulua has amassed 156 points and he will go into the new season as their first choice kicker despite the presence in the squad of 33-year-old Toby Flood, the former England and Leicester outside half, who has booted over nearly 1500 points in his Test and club career to date.
Takulua’s emergence as a first choice kicker owed more to chance, than a great master plan, as the former Northland player explained: “ I always wanted to represent my country growing up and wanted to put the tattoo on myself to show how proud I am to be able to play for Tonga. Other teammates have the same tattoo on their arms and in other places but I have it on my leg and maybe it is helping with my kicking.
“I am not that great a kicker yet and I only started kicking for Tonga on an end of year tour to Italy (2016). I was always mucking around while the kickers were doing their practice and I never got the chance to kick when I played in New Zealand. We didn’t really have kickers in the Tonga squad so I just stepped up and did it and when I came back to Newcastle the coaches had the belief and trust in me to take over the kicking duty. I have been learning that you always make mistakes and all I can do is my best and if I miss I will try and make up for it with the next one.
“Having said I would do the kicking job at Newcastle then it hit home that it really is a big responsibility and everyone relies on you. I am not like Jonny Wilkinson in the way he used to practise here at the club and I have my own routine which I work on and I am learning along with way with Toby (Flood) and Joel (Hodgson) and the coaches. Tonga doesn’t have a skills coach and so I have to do it all myself. We want to build on what we achieved with Newcastle in the Premiership last season finishing fourth and that was fantastic.
“It was a big achievement and it gives us confidence going into the new season and we believe we can go for it again. Bristol have come into the Premiership and like us they have a number of Islander players and I think we bring an attitude and physicality to the game over here. Bristol have a lot of Tongan and Samoan guys and we have Fijian, Samoan and me for Tonga and when we play then we will see who will come out as the best Islanders!”
Takulua was part of the Tonga squad at the 2015 World Cup in England and believes the current squad is equipped to deliver the same kind of headline-grabbing upset that the country’s players achieved in 2011 when they defeated France 19-14. While England’s players will build up for their pool clash with Tonga with numerous squad sessions, the November and Six Nations Tests and warm-up games, Takulua and his teammates will have limited time to ensure they hit the ground running in Japan.
That is why the Test with Wales in November is important as it will give the team an idea of where they stand less than a year away from the opening game with an England team that will be built around their own Tongan players – Mako and Billy Vunipola. Takulua added: “The Wales Test is going to be a good match for us in the build up to the World Cup. There are opportunities for Tonga in Japan and there is a chance for us to repeat the kind of upset we achieved in 2011 against France.
“The Tonga squad has been together for a few tours now and there will be upsets at the (World) Cup.”
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