Monday 23 September 2019

Resilient Tonga still producing results despite paltry funding

Inoke Afeaki Photo: Getty
Inoke Afeaki Photo: Getty

Ben Coles

Before one of Tonga's recent Test matches this year, in the Pacific Nations Cup, team manager Inoke Afeaki was forced to run out to a local sports shop.

The team's kit had not come through in time and Afeaki needed shorts for Tonga's players. Except the Tongan Rugby Union had provided no funds to pay for the extra strip, forcing Afeaki to ask the shop to accept an IOU.

"The shop provided some shorts, but they were hardly suitable for a Test match. Afeaki said he had no idea how they lasted during the Test," said Dan Leo, chief executive of the Pacific Rugby Welfare organisation.

"He said he would not have worn them on the beach, let alone for a top game of rugby. Little things like that at Test level can have a big impact. It is an age-old problem for the Island teams - trying to get key figures in their organisations up to speed with the level teams are performing at."

Rugby union's haves and have-nots operate in disparate worlds and yet stories such as the last-minute dash to purchase some kit remain staggering. Far more seriously, there was also no money available for X-rays.

Tonga's players will not receive a match fee for facing a reshuffled Wales XV, with Warren Gatland resting his front-line starters and making 14 changes, including a first cap for Leicester full-back Jonah Holmes.

Instead, the Tonga squad have been paid a tour fee of 1,000 Pa'anga (€345) each for the week, whereas the players selected by Wales, based on estimated figures from recent years, will receive a match fee of around £5,500 (€6,200).

The Tongan Rugby Union had to be chased earlier this year in order for those allowances to be paid.

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"Off the field, Tonga are struggling. Sadly, they are almost running a satellite side, totally separate from the Tongan Rugby Union," said Leo.

"They are just cracking on, despite the delayed payments. Coaches have dipped into their own pockets when they have had to, in order to keep things moving.

"The guys are all professional players and do not necessarily need that money, but if someone says they are going to give it to you, then you need to hold them accountable.

Cooper Vuna, one of our Pacific Rugby Welfare board members, has been pretty vocal about keeping the TRU honest.

"The CEO used funds that were ringed off for the Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles, Tonga's nickname) for the U-20 side in the summer.

"It is more mismanagement than anything. They sorted it eventually, but I don't know how (head coach) Toutai Kefu has produced positive results."

Given the turmoil behind the scenes, Tonga's on-field success is remarkable, under the coaching of Kefu, the former Wallabies No 8, and Pita Alatini, his assistant.

Ranked 12th in the world - above Italy, Georgia, United States, Romania and Samoa - they beat Fiji and Samoa convincingly in the Pacific Nations Cup and bulldozed a French Barbarians XV last weekend.

Kefu has made just one change to face Wales, adding Castres forward Steve Mafi into the Tongan pack, as they look to cause an upset and end Wales's run of seven home wins in a row.

Elsewhere, England are primed to face a Japan side determined to prove it belongs at the global game's top table when the nations clash at Twickenham on Saturday.

It is only the second time the rivals have met in a Test match, 31 years after they collided at the 1987 World Cup when the Brave Blossoms were crushed 60-7 in Sydney.

The most recent instalment of the tournament was far more successful, however, as an Eddie Jones-led Japan sent South Africa crashing to the greatest upset in rugby history at England 2015. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Wales v Tonga
Live, BBC 1, 2.30

England v Japan,
Live , Sky Sports, 3.0

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