On Friday evening Tonga play their first Rugby World Cup warm-up match against Greene King IPA Championship side Nottingham RFC, in what will be the host’s first ever game against an international team.
For Nottingham this represents a great opportunity to face quality opposition in the run-up to the start of the league season, with the hope of pushing on from their fifth-place finish last season to reach the play-offs.
Rugby World Cup Warm-Up Preview: Tonga v Nottingham
From a Tongan perspective it should be a good first run-out in England, ahead of their Pool opener against Georgia in just three weeks’ time. The squad has been in the country for a couple of weeks now, and the final 30 players (to become 31 at a later date) were confirmed on the 18th August.
In a recent interview with Last Word on Sports, captain Nili Latu and goalkicker Kurt Morath gave some insight into what the team are looking for out of this game. Above all the skipper emphasised the opportunity it gave to try new things and ensure all players get game time, as well as trying to put together a team performance. Interestingly on the first point Latu highlighted that Tonga’s participation in the Pacific Nations Cup had given opponents an extended chance to observe and analyse how they played, implying therefore that the ‘Ikale Tahi need to develop alternative gameplans in order to stay ahead of their competition.
As discussed in my previous article, some commentators such as ex-Samoa forward Dan Leo believe international fixtures need to ensure lower tier nations are exposed to higher quality opposition more regularly to improve their competitiveness in the long-term. In light of Tonga’s ascent into World Rugby’s Top 10 ranked nations, this fixture could be another example to support this view. With all due respect to Nottingham, it may have been more productive for Tonga to have played international opposition at the level of pool rivals Georgia or Argentina, like Italy or Scotland for example, seeing as these are the sides they will be competing against for a quarter final place. However as we know the other tier one nations are all currently playing each other in warm up matches, highlighting this ‘locking out’ of developing nations in international rugby.
But by looking at this issue from the perspective that it forces teams to play at lower standards, does this not also apply to the tier one nations? If England had arranged warm-up games against lower ranked teams, would they not be criticised for not stretching themselves, particularly in light of their ‘pool of death’ fixture list? Additionally any strong performances from squad contenders, such as Danny Cipriani or Billy Twelvetrees would inevitably be qualified by “but it was only against x”, rendering experimentation a dubious measure of future performance.
Again, as Leo concluded, maybe the top nations need to sacrifice this for the greater good of the game in the long term. In any case, a warm up game for England or indeed any of the big three in pool A against Tonga would have been ideal preparation for a game against Fiji, the forgotten fourth major player in that group. By only playing tier two nations by chance every four years at the World Cup the elite sides leave themselves more vulnerable to an upset, as France and Wales know to their cost.
But as it is, the ‘Ikale Tahi will run out at the Lady Bay stadium against Nottingham to showcase all their hard work from their initial training in Surrey and at London Irish, and for individuals to stake their claim for a starting spot.