The Lelos host the Ikale Tahi for the second time in their history, and the first since the two-leg World Cup repechage qualifying series some 15 years ago. Tonga won their opening home match by a huge margin and didn’t much care that they lost in Tbilisi by a single point in the second test. Both sides have come a long way since those days, with most of Georgia’s side now playing in France and not a single Tongan still based at home.
The ‘big’ news in the run-up to the match was that Ben Tameifuna had reconsidered his spot in the squad and decided to withdraw to chase the All Black dream for a few more months. Taking his spot is a pretty useful replacement, another former New Zealand u20 rep, Castres tighthead Paea Fa’anunu. Gloucester’s Sila Puafisi will start alongside clubmate Aleki Lutui, 36 years young and winning his first cap since the 2011 World Cup. Joining them in a positively ancient forward pack is former Gloucester lock Lua Lokotui, now plying his trade at Béziers.
Lutui and Lokotui are somewhat strange selections ahead of Elvis Taione and Lisiate Fa’aoso, both on the bench, and when added with 35 year old Hale T-Pole it starts to look more like a Tongan Old Boys side rather than a first choice test team. Thankfully the backs look a little more reasonable, with Tane Takulua handed his first start ahead of Taniela Moa, though Tevita Halaifonua’s preference over Daniel Kilioni is another curious decision. Tasman prop Siua Halanukonuka looks set to win his first cap as a replacement for Sona Taumalolo in the squad.
Georgia field a significantly younger side in age, but a vastly more experienced one in test appearances. Nearly all of their first choice players are available, with Clermont prop Davit Zirakashvili and Toulon enforcer Mamuka Gorgodze the most notable absentees due to injury. Dimitri Basilaia is left out after struggling to get into the starting side at Perpignan, with 75-cap veteran Giorgi Chkhaidze instead selected to add some leadership to the forwards.
Three 70-plus capped backs return in the form of Davit Kacharava, captain Irakli Machkhaneli, and goal kicker Merab Kvirikashvili. Promising youngsters Tamaz Mchedlidze and Merab Sharikadze add a little zest to the attack, should they see the ball. Reserve flyhalf Lasha Malaguradze will win his 50th cap when he arrives on the pitch.
This has the potential to be a bit of a snoozer, with neither side tending to play much expansive rugby, but at the very least there should be some quality collisions up front. It’s a shame we won’t get to see Gorgodze vs Hala’ufia. That said Kolelishvili vs Kalamafoni might be the next best thing. Georgia should have the edge in the scrum, though Tonga are no slouches there, but the Ikale Tahi boast the most firepower in the backs. Vunga Lilo’s counterattacking prowess could come in handy, and it will be interesting to see how the Georgian midfield deals with battering ram Hemani Paea. This one should be close, with slight home field advantage going to the Lelos, who edge it by 6.
GEORGIA vs TONGA
Saturday, November 8, 13:00 GMT, Tbilisi
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (FFR)
Assistants: Andrew McMenemy (SRU) & Vlad Iordachescu (FRR)
TMO: Carlo Damasco (FIR)