World Cup Pool C: Tonga Back on Track

Tonga 35 Namibia 21

It has been a long wait for Tonga to right the wrongs from game one. Following on from the weekend where the host’s tournament may already be almost over, it feels like the Pacific Islanders’ involvement has just begun. Following a disappointing and surprising defeat against Georgia at Kingsholm in Gloucester, the team travelled even further south to Exeter’s Sandy Park to face the lowest ranked side in the tournament, Namibia.  This was the first of three games at the ground, which has undergone a massive transformation since its days as an English second tier ground as recently as 2010.

Tonga began the game with intent, and that attitude reaped immediate rewards. A break after just three minutes by co-captain Siale Piatau, although punctured by a knock on, set the scene for a set play from a lineout for winger Telusa Veainu to break the Namibian line and cross the try line. Shortly after a hugely powerful finish by flanker Jack Ram made it 12-0 and should have crushed Namibian spirits. The Pacific Islanders looked determined to take control but the open game plan led to a turnover by Namibia and Johan Tromp crossed to make it 12-7.  This end-to-end free flowing game suited Tonga, and they were able to run in a third try within half an hour, though again from a set play. They were undone by being dragged into a forward battle by Georgia, so not allowing Jacques Burger and company to try and build a platform for the Africans was a smart tactical plan.

The try bonus point came early in the second half with a second try from Ram, but then two tries from Namibia skipper Burger brought them back into the game. A fifth try and a penalty from replacement Kurt Morath, who became Tonga’s all-time record points scorer, settled any nerves and denied Namibia any chance of their first World Cup point, either through the try bonus or losing bonus.

The Launchpad to Leicester: Tonga vs Argentina

Attention must quickly turn to Sunday, where the ‘Ikale Tahi travel north to Leicester to face Argentina for another must-win match. They are currently above Los Pumas in the Pool, and a victory would put them fully back on track for a quarter final place. This certainly won’t be easy, as Argentina have proved themselves up front and in the backs in their first two games. The South Americans will be expecting to qualify from the pool and perhaps replicate their memorable performance in 2007 when they finished third. A chance then for Tonga to spring a surprise?

They are certainly up for the fight, as Piatau illustrated after the Namibia game; saying “We’ll play this Argentina game as our final. We played one final today, we got another life and we’ll play another final come Sunday.” The move to another training camp, this time at Loughborough University, will help get them into a winning mindset, with the host campus home of the number one University for sport in the UK and equipped with world class facilities. If Tonga weren’t prepared for the opening game, they should certainly be up to speed now, benefitting from matches in three of the country’s rugby heartlands in Gloucester, Exeter and now Leicester.

This is important as it appears that Tonga need to be in the right mindset to play at their best. In two consecutive World Cup games spanning 2011 and 2015 they beat France then lost to Georgia. This sort of inconsistency is what will hinder them from regularly qualifying automatically for tournaments and ultimately qualifying for quarter finals. A victory against Argentina is not beyond them, and it would prove that the France result was not a fluke and the Georgia defeat was in fact the anomaly.

Having watched both of these teams play against Georgia though, it is admittedly hard to see anything but an Argentine victory on Sunday. They have firmly established themselves as a Tier One nation, proving the point that consistent exposure to top teams (through The Rugby Championship) does improve national sides. They were very impressive in attack, running in multiple second half tries at Kingsholm and the Argentine pack is one to be feared with the likes of Marcos Ayerza and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.  I hope for a fast-paced, open affair as this will level the playing field and be more entertaining for it. A couple of weeks on from the South Africa vs Japan game, we are due another upset. Could it be on Sunday?
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