The build up to this year’s World Cup arguably began in 2009 when it was announced that it would be hosted by England. However I have only recently started to get properly excited about the tournament, perhaps with the start of the warm-up internationals and squad announcements that now make it feel real. The reality is that next month I will watch two World Cup games live in my home city, Gloucester, and also contribute to the media coverage by following Tonga for this site. This assignment already feels like the traditional office sweepstake where I have gained a second team to support, and I will indeed be doing so at Kingsholm for ‘Ikale Tahi against Georgia, a game that follows the England vs Fiji curtain raiser the evening before.
Naturally I have looked to improve my knowledge of this small Pacific nation and its team. With many current or former Aviva Premiership players in their squad, local fans in the stadia should be familiar with many names in its line-up, such as Soane Tonga’uiha, Steve Mafi and Halani Aulika. Personally I have grown up watching Tongans run out for Gloucester, such as former players Seti Kiole, Tukulua Lokotui and Aleki Lutui, as well as current squad members Sila Puafisi, Sione Kalamafoni and David Halaifonua having all represented their nation. What’s more Tonga will be taking their training base camp to my alma mater, Loughborough University, and a local rugby club Cheltenham RFC in addition to their official welcoming ceremony taking place at Cheltenham Town Hall. For fans up and down the country simply being able to picture exactly where the team will be like this certainly brings the tournament closer, and again ramps up the anticipation.
My strongest memories of Tonga extend back to World Cup 2007 in France, when they were in England’s group and gave the Red Rose a run for their money in Paris. ‘Ikale Tahi also upset neighbours Samoa in that tournament to finish third in the pool. They then made further waves in 2011 when they upset France 19-14 and had they beaten Canada they would have qualified for the quarter finals. Despite these positives, this small nation of around 100,000 people has never escaped the group stages in six World Cup appearances, and boasts only six wins out of 21 games.
So what can we expect of Tonga in 2015? The side has just finished third in the Pacific Nations Cup behind fellow Pacific Islanders Samoa and Fiji. Relatively comfortable victories over Canada and the USA followed an opening round defeat to eventual winners Fiji, which many would see as a predictable pattern of results. With Argentina and New Zealand also in Pool C Tonga will almost certainly need to beat Los Pumas in order to take the second place spot. Facing such strong obstacles requires ‘Ikale Tahi to be able to bank on victories against Georgia and Namibia and demonstrate that elusive ability to win under pressure and string together consistent performances. However as we know they will face an ever-improving Georgia in the first pool game, which could turn into a repeat of the Canada banana skin from 2011. On the back of their Pacific Nations Cup performances they have broken into the World Rugby Rankings Top 10 and are at a crossroads of stepping up a level in world Rugby.
As former Samoa international Dan Leo notes in a recent blog for The Rugby Paper, it is in fact competitions like the Pacific Nations Cup that prevents teams like Tonga from progressing, because it means lower ranked countries don’t play Tier One countries often enough and therefore don’t gain the exposure that Italy and Argentina have gained from the Six Nations and Rugby Championship respectively. Additionally, as Leo notes, it prevents the development of rugby in Tier Two nations, such as Tonga, who have not hosted a test match at home this year, and therefore miss out on the revenues lucrative games against say New Zealand or England.
But this is a long term solution; in 35 days Tonga will begin their World Cup campaign and all efforts must go towards another shock result or two to propel the Friendly Islands into the Quarter Finals for the first time.