Tonga seek quick return to top flight

(IRB.COM) Friday 15 June 2012
 Tonga seek quick return to top flight
Tonga were demoted from last year's JWC in Italy when they lost to the host team in Rovigo

Tonga Under 20s have set their sights on an immediate return to the IRB Junior World Championship in 2013.

The Pacific Island nation was relegated from the top tier age-grade competition after propping up the 12-team table in Italy last year. A 34-22 defeat to the host nation in the final play-off game sealed their fate and, as a result, they will arrive in Salt Lake City this week for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy which kicks off on June 18.

Tonga are pre-tournament favourites and head coach Nili Tu’ipulotu – father of English Premiership’s Newcastle Falcons centre Tane – says they will be going all out to reclaim their place among the ‘big boys’ of international junior rugby.

“According to the ratings, we are favourites but all the teams can beat each other these days, looking at the results of the last Rugby World Cup shows that,” he said.

Every match is vital

“It is going to be hard for us because you cannot afford to lose a single game in the US, we must win every game to get to the final and be in with a shot of getting back up again into the JWC.”

“It is really important for us to get back up there and play against the big boys again because our players want to test themselves against the best. Being on the biggest stage also helps expose players to the professional teams overseas who are looking to recruit. It increases their chances of picking up a contract.”

“It comes to a point where they are just playing with their peers and there is no real improvement. To do that they need to go overseas and make a career for themselves and their families.”

Playing in the JWRT is a new experience for Tonga, and it is one that Tu’ipulotu hopes is not repeated. He added: “We were the first Pacific nation to get into the top tier – even before Samoa and Fiji – and we stayed there every year until last year when we finished bottom.”

Standards are improving all the time

“Our aim is to fight our way back into the mainstream but we know that it is not going to be easy.”

The 26-man Tonga squad travelling to the USA will be made up of 20 locals and six New Zealand-based players. Originally, there were due to be eight but a disciplinary issue has ruled out one player while another, back-row forward Solomon T-Pole , has been selected by New Zealand Under 20s for the IRB Junior World Championships in South Africa.

“It would have been nice to have had Solomon in the US with us but it is great for him that he has been called up by New Zealand Under 20s. We are really pleased for him and it also gives an opportunity to one of our local boys.”

“The six New Zealand-based players we will be taking are: prop/hooker Kalafi Pongi, prop Wilson Lavelua, lock Michael Faleafa, scrum-half Filimone Moala and two fly-halves, Latiume Fosita and Thomas Faiva.”

Tonga plays USA first, followed by Russia and Chile

Tonga’s JWRT 2012 campaign kicks off against the host nation before fixtures against Russia and Chile.

“We haven’t had any competitive fixtures as such in our preparation for the tournament, but we have been in training since March and warm-up matches have taken place against some of the local teams on the Island. The last one was on May 30,” said Tu’ipulotu.

“It’s going to be a tough opening match because there will be a lot of home support for the US I’d imagine.”

At 67 years of age, Tu’ipulotu is in the twilight of his coaching career but he says the last few years have been his most productive.

Veteran coach still has plenty to offer

“I started coaching when I retired from playing in the early 1980s, drawing mainly on my experiences as a player. I used to work for the Ministry of Agriculture so I fitted in coaching around my day job. I made a lot of mistakes back then.”

“In 2005 I took the coaching programmes offered by the IRB and I soon realised how little I knew. The courses were very helpful. I now know about the principles of coaching and I have got my IRB Level 3 Coaching qualification. But I think I’ll stop there because my age is creeping up on me.”