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Toutai Kefu explains the 'quick fix' to make Tonga more competitive

By Tom Vinicombe
Tonga. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

While 102-0 doesn’t make for pretty reading, Tonga’s sizeable loss at the hands of the All Blacks on Saturday night was the expected outcome thanks to the many challenges currently faced by the island nation.

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At the best of times, Tonga are forced to contend with their players being scattered across the globe, making player assessment difficult and training management borderline impossible.

They’re also expected to come together as a team in a short window of time and then go head-to-head with better prepared, better-resourced nations.

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The Maori All Blacks’ campaign has come to an end for another year.

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The Maori All Blacks’ campaign has come to an end for another year.

Throw in the global pandemic, and the likes of Tonga and their fellow tier-two nations have their backs up against the wall, especially given the ill-timing of the European domestic finals. That doesn’t mean the Pacific Island nation wasn’t up for the battle on Saturday, however.

“For us, in any climate, it’s a challenge,” Tonga coach Toutai Kefu said following the defeat at the hands of the All Blacks. “When you add COVID on top of that, it becomes more of a challenge.

“In all the campaigns I’ve gone through, our boys don’t complain or moan, they just get on with it. We don’t focus on negatives – ‘we didn’t get this, we didn’t get that’, we move on.”

“COVID’s obviously a layer of difficulty. But you’ve got the French [finals] and the English [finals] pretty much aligned with this kind of window so you’ve got to hope that some of the players don’t make it.

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“But this time around, it’s just been mainly because of COVID, players not coming back due to quarantine costs. They usually get the one month off and then they’re back training. They’re probably not going to spend all of that in quarantine.”

While the pandemic appears to be easing up marginally around the world, there are other changes to the way the game is governed that Kefu believes could hugely benefit Tonga.

“There’s a range of things [that could help],” he said. “We get two windows a year – which is probably about four weeks. We haven’t got the luxury of having all our players play in the one competition and then we can train whenever we want. So probably the biggest quick fix would probably just be to get access to our better players. That’s probably the quick fix. And the next one probably can’t be done but to spend more time together.”

That challenge could be hugely mitigated should Moana Pasifika join Super Rugby next year.

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“I could keep a lot of my players locally,” Kefu said. “I don’t have to send them overseas to France or to the other competitions, I could keep them here where we could monitor them or observe them.”

Kefu also identified the eligibility laws as a major factor. Currently, the only means for a player to change from one test nation to another is via the Olympics sevens loophole – which has seen former All Black Malakai Fekitoa link up with the Tongan sevens team in recent weeks in order to make himself available for the national XVs side.

“[Eligibility changes] would help a lot,” said Kefu. “There’s a few players that are ready to be capped, it’s just all about the timing. It depends what part of the eligibility… I certainly believe there should be a stand-down period. My opinion is that extra hoop that they have to jump through, in terms of playing sevens, is probably just a layer of complication that probably we don’t need. I’m happy with just a three or a four-year stand-down. It’d suit us a lot. If that’s possible, our team transforms.”

Kefu is hopeful that changes will occur during his tenure as Tonga coach but acknowledged that he may not be able to reap the benefits of any future decisions made around eligibility.

“The next coach will have a really good team,” he joked.

“[That decision making] is at another level. As a union or as a coaching group, we can voice our opinions. But those changes, that’s discussed at a higher level than me.”

Over the next two weeks, Tonga will square off with Samoa to determine who qualifies immediately for the 2023 Rugby World Cup and who needs to compete in further qualification tournaments.

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finn 10 hours ago
Massive red flag raised by weakened Champions Cup teams – Andy Goode

I wonder if the problem of some teams not taking it that seriously would be helped by making performance in the champions cup count towards qualification and/or seeding in the following year’s competition. Eg. top four seeds would be winners of the URC, premiership, and top 14, plus best performing team in the previous year’s CC who have not otherwise qualified. Doing that the seedings for this years comp. would have been: Tier one: Saracens - Munster - Toulouse - la Rochelle Tier two: Sale - Stormers - Racing 92 - Leinster Tier three: Leicester - Connacht - Bordeaux - Exeter Tier four: Northampton - Ulster - Lyon - Sharks Tier five: Harlequins - Glasgow - Stade Francais - Edinburgh Tier six: Bath - Bulls - Toulon - Ospreys The competition would probably work better with fewer teams, so I’d probably favour only the first 4 tiers being invited, and then going straight to a quarter final without a round of 16. On the one hand this would possibly incentivise teams to take the champions cup seriously, and on the other it would mean that the latter stages would be more likely to involve teams that have demonstrated a willingness to take the competition seriously. The main differences between my proposed system and the actual draw is that mine would give la Rochelle a fairly easy ride to the quarters, and would either exclude the Bulls entirely or would give then an insurmountably difficult draw. As it happened Exeter got quite an easy pool draw but that was a bit of a fluke. My system would reward Exeter for being one of the teams that demonstrably devote a lot of attention to the CC by guaranteeing them a good draw.

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