What a difference a week makes. Before the start of the tournament, the men from Tonga would have been quietly confident about challenging for a quarter final place. Now, the Pacific Islanders have it all to do to try and finish third in the pool to guarantee qualification for the next World Cup. Defeat at Kingsholm to Georgia, albeit with a losing bonus point, and Argentina’s strong performance against New Zealand, has left the odds stacked against them.
It may be of some comfort then that their next game, on Tuesday at Exeter’s Sandy Park, is against Namibia – a team that has lost every single one of their World Cup games to date since they first competed in 1999. However, last Saturday proved that Tonga cannot be complacement or take the win for granted. They were outmuscled by Georgia, and had numerous issues across the field, and Namibia are sure to be just as up for the physical battle as any other team in this pool. Led by their human wrecking ball of a captain, Jacques Burger, the Africans will look to exploit the scrum that caused Tonga such problems in Gloucester.
So how can Tonga bounce back from defeat and approach this match?
1. Forget the Georgia result
Kingsholm was a bad day at the office all round. Bar a few positive individual performances, from the likes of Nili Latu and Fetu’u Vainikolo, it was a poor team effort that inevitably led to the concession of multiple turnovers, knock-ons and other handling errors. It leaves them in a difficult position, but Tonga cannot afford to be thinking about other fixtures and potential future results. In effect, they should treat this as Game One.
2. Play a strong team
As already established, Tonga cannot assume that this game is in the bag. Indeed, Namibia’s display at the Olympic Stadium against New Zealand, where they were defeated but by no means disgraced, shows that they are serious about their aim of winning their first World Cup game. Tonga are, of course, firm favourites, and they should earn the four points, but such an attitude will only be a hindrance. The only previous meeting between the two sides ended in a 20-14 victory for the Pacific Islanders. There is no room, therefore, for resting key players for Tonga’s two later fixtures against New Zealand and Argentina. To build momentum, and specifically to improve from last week’s disjoined display, consistency is key. The team will be announced on Sunday.
3. Don’t think about the bonus point
After last week’s performance, Tonga do not want to be chasing the game, especially if they do not solve the handling issues. If Namibia take chances like Georgia and start to build a lead, the possibility of an upset will rapidly increase. New Zealand had to wait for over an hour to pass 50 points, so Tonga should not expect a try fest. Although, one thing perhaps in their favour is the longer turnaround time from the first match that they have enjoyed. The New Zealand game is sure to have taken a lot out of Namibia’s mostly amateur squad.
4. Remain strong up front
The major disappointment from the Georgia game was the high loss of possession through scrums and rucks. A return to the expected physical dominance will be needed to ensure that they can build the phases and grind down their opposition. Prop Halani Aulika is confident that the pack can deliver, telling Rugby World Cup: “It’s going to be physical; their scrum will be hard to stop. They’ve got a few big players on their team and it’ll be hard scrummaging against them, but we’ll be all right as long as we stick to our gameplan.”
With upsets the theme of the tournament too far, it is clear that the higher ranked nations will not always have it their own way, and Namibia are likely to see this as their best chance of earning that precious first win. Tonga will no doubt have learnt from the Georgia game, and readdressing their errors should see them notch a victory this time round.