What an overhauled Tonga team could look like at the Pacific Nations Cup
For the first time since World Rugby’s new eligibility laws came into play, Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu will name an ‘Ikale Tahi squad this Friday.
The squad Kefu names will be tasked with competing against Fiji, Samoa and Australia A at the revived Pacific Nations Cup, before going on to face either Hong Kong, South Korea or Malaysia in a World Cup play-off match.
Just who makes the upcoming Tonga squad will be of significant interest given the freedom at Kefu’s disposal to pick a potentially world-beating team filled with former test stars, primarily from New Zealand and Australia.
While it remains to be seen exactly who will the make next ‘Ikale Tahi squad, here’s a look at a possible lineup that Tonga could name for their upcoming July fixtures.
1. Siegfried Fisiihoi
This spot in Tonga’s starting lineup may yet be taken by four-test All Blacks prop Atu Moli, who will become eligible for Tonga for this November’s test window if he isn’t picked by New Zealand before then. In the meantime, Pau prop Siegfired Fisiihoi is the frontrunner to retain his place as Tonga’s incumbent loosehead.
2. Paul Ngauamo
A member of the ‘Ikale Tahi since 2014, Castres hooker Paul Ngauamo should remain the starting hooker for Tonga, having held down the No 2 jersey in tests against Scotland, England and Romania last November.
3. Ben Tameifuna
Bordeaux prop Ben Tameifuna should continue to start at tighthead for Tonga, although one wonders whether Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu will come into the fray when he become eligible for the ‘Ikale Tahi in mid-October.
4. Lopeti Timani
After 12 tests for the Wallabies between 2016 and 2017, Tongan-born utility forward Lopeti Timani switched his international allegience to Tonga via the old Olympic sevens loophole last year. The new Cardiff signing went on to make his test debut for the ‘Ikale Tahi against England last November.
5. Sam Lousi
Since committing to Tonga in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Scarlets lock Sam Lousi has been a prominent figure for ‘Ikale Tahi. His starting role will soon be challenged when ex-Wallabies lock Adam Coleman becomes available for selection for the Novembers tests, though.
6. Samipeni Finau
One of numerous contenders who could start at blindside flanker, uncapped Chiefs loose forward Samipeni Finau earns selection at No 6 due to his form in Super Rugby Pacific. Moana Pasifika utility forward Sione Tuipulotu and Harlequins flanker Viliami Taulani could also come into consideration.
7. Colby Fainga’a
Called into the Wallabies squad last November, Lyon flanker Colby Fainga’a never made his test debut for Australia, and it’s unlikely he ever will under Rugby Australia’s new selection criteria for foreign-based players. As such, the younger brother of ex-Wallabies duo Saia and Anthony Fainga’a could debut for Tonga instead.
8. Lui Naeata
Similarly to Fainga’a, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes Osaka No 8 Lui Naeata was a member of the Japan national squad last year but never debuted for the Brave Blossoms. An enormous figure at 1.93m and 118kg, the destructive 28-year-old could yet play for Japan, but would be a massive gain for his homeland of Tonga.
9. Sonatane Takulua
The inspirational ‘Ikale Tahi captain who has long been a member of the Tongan set-up, expect Toulon halfback Sonatane Takulua to retain his place in the No 9 jersey. Had he not won clearance from World Rugby to play for the All Blacks, Highlanders star Folau Fakatava may have been an outside chance to take Takulua’s spot.
10. James Faiva
Likewise, Petrarca first-five James Faiva’s experience should make him the odds-on favourite to resume his halves combination with Takulua. Saracens pivot Manu Vunipola is eligible, but it’s hard to see him committing to Tonga so early after having recently played age-grade rugby for England.
11. Tevita Li
A try-scoring machine since moving to Tokyo Sungoliath from Super Rugby, former Blues and Highlanders wing Tevita Li has been vocal in his desire to play for Tonga in recent months. With nine tries in eight League One matches this season, you’d have to imagine Li would be sought-after by the ‘Ikale Tahi. Crusaders star Leicester Fainga’anuku would be a strong challenger for this spot were he not a likely selection for the All Blacks.
12. George Moala
One of four former All Blacks included in this match day team, Clermont midfielder George Moala is eligible for the Tonga – who he represented at U20 level in 2010 – after having played the last of his four tests for New Zealand in 2016.
13. Malakai Fekitoa
Newly-signed Munster recruit Malakai Fekitoa is primed to link up with Moala in an all-All Blacks midfield after qualifying for Tonga via the Olympic sevens loophole last July.
14. Israel Folau
Among the most polarising figures in rugby, Shining Arcs Tokyo-Bay Urayasu star Israel Folau is set to revive his test career with Tonga after prematurely ending it with the Wallabies in 2018. Expect fireworks when Tonga play Australia A in the Pacific Nations Cup.
15. Charles Piutau
Another former All Black whose test career came to an abrupt end when he ditched the New Zealand to sign a lucrative deal with Ulster in 2015, Bristol Bears star Charles Piutau is finally set to return to test rugby after seven long years.
16. Siua Maile
17. Abraham Pole
Since achieving the rare feat of turning out for two franchises in the same Super Rugby season, Moana Pasifika youngster, and ex-Crusaders prop, Abraham Pole has caught the eye with his nose for the tryline this year.
18. Ma’afu Fia
Another long-serving Tongan international, Ospreys prop Ma’afu Fia, who has turned out for Bath as injury cover this season, ended last year’s test campaign as Tameifuna’s back-up at tighthead, and it’s hard to see why that would change heading into this year.
19. Steve Mafi
A veteran of the ‘Ikale Tahi, London Irish second rower Steve Mafi stands as an enticing selection for Tonga due to his experience.
20. Solomone Funaki
After debuting for Tonga against the All Blacks last year, Moana Pasifika openside flanker Solomone Funaki has impressed enough in his maiden Super Rugby Pacific to warrant a return to the ‘Ikale Tahi squad.
21. Augustine Pulu
Hino Red Dolphins halfback Augustine Pulu last played test rugby for the All Blacks in 2014, meaning he is free for Tonga selection immediately.
22. William Havili
The younger brother of All Blacks midfielder David Havili, Moana Pasifika fullback William Havili has taken to Super Rugby Pacific with aplomb, which has put him on Kefu’s radar as a first-five option.
23. Hosea Saumaki
A debutant for Tonga last year, Hosea Saumaki has been described as Leicester Tigers signing of the season after crossing for 10 tries in his first 12 appearances for the Premiership leaders. That kind of form is deserving of ‘Ikale Tahi selection.
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