There are very few predicting anything even close to an upset when England take on Tonga in their World Cup opener on Sunday, although that doesn’t mean that the Sea Eagles don’t have a few aces up their sleeve.
The England players will be well aware of some of the more potent players in the Tonga side when they meet in Sapporo, with a number of them playing alongside one another in the Gallagher Premiership on a week-in, week-out basis.
There are also some fresher faces in the forms of Vunipola Fifita of the Brumbies or New Zealand club rugby hooker Siua Maile, but if Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu has any chance of springing a remarkable upset – or at least pushing England closer than many expect – he will need to lean heavily on three of his star performers.
RugbyPass takes a look at Tonga’s three most important dangermen…
Telusa Veainu (full-back)
English rugby fans need no introduction to Veainu, with the Leicester Tiger having lit up the Premiership over the last four years. Unfortunately, injuries have reduced the impact he has been able to have more recently. However, when fit, there is arguably no more dangerous counter-attack in the competition.
(Continue reading below…)
Not only will his counter-attacking be key to Tonga, his ability in the air, where he plays much bigger than his 5ft 11in frame, will also be vital. If he can turn that into an attacking weapon, putting up contestable kicks and challenging England’s incumbent full-back Elliot Daly for the ball, he could help swing territorial and possession advantages for his team in important moments.
In a Tonga team that is lacking somewhat for x-factor at this World Cup, Veainu delivers it in abundance as an individual.
Steve Mafi (lock)
The towering second row is one of Tonga’s more dynamic carrying threats in the pack and while they will know they need to secure parity in the arm wrestle in the tight, they will also be keen to try and get Mafi into some space where he can hurt the English defence.
Sensible call from attack coach Scott Wisemantel who can't understand why England don't give back to the Pacific Islands such as Tonga by touring
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 17, 2019
He excelled previously at Leicester before enjoying productive stints at both Western Force and Castres, and is now set to link up with London Irish on their return to the Premiership. He will know a number of the England players well from his time in Europe and will need to try and find a way of disrupting the well-oiled combinations of Jamie George, Maro Itoje and George Kruis at the lineout.
If Mafi can hinder England’s efficient lineout and bring his prolific carrying ability to the fray, he will at least give Tonga a puncher’s chance of causing England problems.
Ben Tameifuna (tighthead prop)
The 24-stone prop may not be relishing the likely heat and humidity in Sapporo, but it’s unlikely he will be tasked with an 80-minute shift against England. Kefu will want the Racing 92 star to empty the tank against Joe Marler and the English pack and deliver as much front-foot ball as he possibly can.
His sheer size and power around the fringes is hard for even the most disciplined of defences to completely contain and if he can punch holes and draw defenders into the contact area, Tonga will feel as though they can create mismatches further out. He will also need to try and negate the scrummaging ability of Marler.
A dominant 50 minutes from Tameifuna would go a long way towards helping Tonga achieve their ambitions in this match, even if a victory seems unlikely.
WATCH: The trailer for the new RugbyPass behind the scenes documentary with Tonga as they prepare for the World Cup in Japan
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.