Rugby: Wounded Tonga struggling to fill spots for crucial World Cup qualifier against Cook Islands


Tonga is struggling to find enough players to take on the Cook Islands in Saturday's Rugby World Cup qualifying match in Auckland.

The 'Ikale Tahi' capped 17 new players during tests against the All Blacks and Samoa this month, with most of their European based stars unavailable because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Thirty players were in camp ahead of last weekend's second test against Samoa - a World Cup qualifier - in Hamilton, but injuries and unavailability have depleted their squad further, with just 27 players in the mix to play on Saturday afternoon.

Hooker Siua Maile, lock Harrison Mataele and number eight Nasi Manu picked up a knock during Saturday's 37-15 defeat in Kirikiriroa, joining Solomone Funaki and Zane Kapeli on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, Maama Vaipulu has returned to his day job as a builder, Kali Hala has a family bereavement and Aisea Halo is back with the North Harbour NPC team.

Coach Toutai Kefu says the management staff were still trying to find extra players to join the squad just four days before kickoff.

"There's a list of players that you have and we've all gone through those - we've gone through probably 50, 60, 70 players I'd say. It's just basically ringing agents, ringing coaches, club coaches - even asking players...'does anyone know any Tongans' basically," he laughs.

"We were whiteboarding names last night and counting how many props turned us down - it was nearly 25 [over the last couple of months]."

The global pandemic hasn't helped Tonga's recruitment efforts, with the cost of MIQ facilities in New Zealand forcing them to focus on locally-based players, the bulk of whom have not played above club rugby.

"It is what it is. We give players a choice. We actually confirmed probably a group of players coming and by the time they had a chat to their agents the next day they reversed the decision," Kefu says.

"It's very easy to have a depth chart, but if those players don't want to come play for you, well, that changes everything. It doesn't really become a depth chart because those players are not on the chart.

"That's something we will do straight after this campaign is take a close look at where all our players are and just investigate and see if we can change the thinking of those players."

There is some good news, however. Tonga's only fit lock, Don Lolo, who also had to return to work this week, will rejoin the camp on Thursday and is available to play on Saturday

Former Tonga Under-20s lock Kelemete Finau and ex-New Zealand Under 20s number eight Tovo Faleafa have joined the squad this week, while Waikato Development centre Paula Mahe and Bay of Plenty based lock Semisi Paea have been elevated to the full squad after training with the team in recent weeks.

Waikato Development hooker Anton Milnes is also training with the squad in Cambridge.

Tongan coach Toutai Kefu
Tongan coach Toutai Kefu Photo credit: Image - Photosport, video - Newshub

While the off-field distractions made for a disjointed training session on Tuesday afternoon, Kefu remained confident Tonga would be able to name a competitive team for the weekend.

"I mean we're in no position to be taking anyone for granted - just in the last three weeks we've probably been beaten by 200 points aggregate so we're in no position to be taking anyone lightly, and that's why we're abosolutely concentrating on winning this game."