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FEATURE The most crucial match for the Wallabies' World Cup hopes has arrived

The most crucial match for the Wallabies' World Cup hopes has arrived
11 months ago

All eyes may be on the latest instalment of Eddie Jones v Michael Cheika in Sydney but the Wallabies’ World Cup hopes will in part be decided in faraway Nuku’alofa.

The Tongan capital is where the palm-trunk thighs and massive frame of Taniela Tupou will make a comeback on Friday.

The most influential prop in Australian rugby is set to play his first match in eight months since blowing an Achilles tendon last November against Ireland.

They are notoriously fickle injuries with calf niggles and other muscle troubles often going hand-in-hand before a player is truly back at full fitness.

That’s even more so when you are housed in a 135kg-plus superstructure.

The thing is, Tupou hasn’t got time for a little derailment. Coach Jones will be watching intently on TV before his Saturday mission with the Wallabies against Cheika’s Argentina in Sydney.

Quade Cooper
Eddie Jones’ Wallabies will take on Argentina this weekend. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

The 47-Test hulk’s appearance for Australia A against Tonga in Nuku’alofa is step one on a path that hopefully includes some minutes in the two upcoming Tests against the All Blacks.

There could even be a hit-out in there for his Brisbane club Brothers to give him some valuable time on the pitch.

People often forget that the World Cup goes for seven weeks and being underdone for an opening game against Georgia in Paris on September 9 is very different to being cherry ripe to go in a quarter-final on October 14 or 15.

Having Tupou purring at the right time for the Wallabies scrum is vital. He alters the whole dynamic for Australia, which could be crucial after some of the shortcomings exposed by South Africa in Pretoria last weekend.

Tupou will relish the setting of this Australia A comeback game.

I just wanted to be one of them in the future and have young Tongans look up to me.

Taniela Tupou

He is a man of Tonga and it was watching Tongan players excel for the Wallabies that created the dream that he might too one day.

“One of the reasons why I liked the Wallabies was watching Toutai Kefu, George Smith, ‘Keps’ (Sekope Kepu) and Tatafu (Polota-Nau) when I was young,” Tupou said.

“I just wanted to be one of them in the future and have young Tongans look up to me. I wanted to play for the Wallabies.”

For those who know their history, this Australia A match against the ‘Ikale Tahi has enormous significance.

It’s in part recognition of the 50th anniversary of one of rugby’s greatest upsets.

Before Western Samoa toppled Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991 and the Japanese stunned South Africa in 2015’s Miracle in Brighton, there was the 1973 Tongan team.

Japan celebrate the winning score of their historic 2015 victory over the Springboks. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Many of the 1973 Tongan touring side were boarding a plane for the first time when they headed for Australia. Some had yet to stay in a hotel.

What they did with a monumental 16-11 upset of the Wallabies at Ballymore in Brisbane was create a legend still talked about in Tonga today.

Tupou knows the tale of heroes: “Yes, I’ve watched bits on YouTube. They were a good team, so big for Tonga and people have always talked about them.”

Australia’s 1999 World Cup-winning No 8 Toutai Kefu is now Tongan coach.

His link to 1973 is through blood because father Fatai was a utility back in the squad.

This match for Tonga against Australia A is vital in the tiny island nation’s preparation for the World Cup where they have drawn a tough pool with South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania.

“That win over the Wallabies in 1973 is the most iconic moment in our rugby history. People still talk about it in Tonga and they have again this week for the 50th anniversary,” Kefu said.

“Most of the players know of 1973 and hear talk of it. I refer to the hard work of those pioneers and them really just playing for the jersey and their families. Many over the years have had connections like we do now with team manager Tony Alatini, whose father Malakai was the flyhalf that day.

“To have my own connection to that Test through my father is something I treasure. As a kid, I remember seeing my father’s red Tongan tour blazer. It probably weighed 2kg in wool.”

A number of players from the 1973 Tongan squad returned to Australia to play club rugby in the years that followed.

Fatai Kefu was one. He created a new life in Australia.

Sons Toutai and Steve played for the Wallabies. Another son Fala’eo played for the Australian Under 21s and a fourth, Mafi, played more than 100 games in France for US Dax and Toulon.

Toutai Kefu
Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The four Kefu brothers all played together in the Souths first grade side one afternoon in 2003.

“It took some bravery for my father and others from Tonga to come to Brisbane in the 1970s, basically, with no education, no money and no English,” Kefu said.

“My father lay bitumen on the roads. There were labouring and factory jobs and his club helped out.”

This match for Tonga against Australia A is vital in the tiny island nation’s preparation for the World Cup where they have drawn a tough pool with South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania.

“This is the best squad that Tonga has ever assembled for a World Cup. Players like Isileli (Israel) Folau, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Tameifuna and so on bring all their experience and will play against Australia A,” Kefu said.

“We have been planning for this and now we get started.

“I’ve had people say it’s unfortunate we are in a tough pool for the World Cup. My players disagree. They are saying ‘We’re here to play the best in the world, not tier two sides.’

“That’s the positive attitude we have. Who knows?

With a grin, Kefu added: “I can tell you, once the fans are in the ground for this game, they won’t really care if they are Australia A players or Wallabies being hit with big tackles.”

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