Like their Fijian cousins, the Ikale Tahi have rolled out most of their big guns for their end of year tour, with one name bigger than all the rest. Colossal Chiefs tighthead Ben Tameifuna has opted to join his uncle Sona Taumalolo in the Tongan red rather than the black jersey which many had tipped him for. He takes the place of Halani Aulika, who will remain with London Irish to continue his comeback from a serious Achilles tendon injury.
The first choice forwards look very competitive, with some seriously heavy hitters in the back row. Aviva Premiership fans will be familiar with Sione Kalamafoni, Viliami Fihaki, and the infamous Christopher Hala’ufia, back in the side after a five year absence. A new name to look out for is Ma’ama Vaipulu, a standout for Counties Manukau in the ITM Cup and today named in the Chiefs’ wider training squad for the upcoming Super Rugby season. Nili Latu continues as captain, with Vili Ma’afu adding considerable experience at the back of the scrum.
Another new-ish name to take note of is Paul Ngauamo. The former Canterbury and New Zealand u20 hooker made his debut in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup and has since signed with Oyonnax in the Top 14. With Elvis Taione finding playing time hard to come by at Exeter, it could be Ngauamo who wears the no2 jersey. Lisiate Fa’aoso and Joe Tu’ineau should form a pretty imposing second row unit for him to aim for at the lineout.
There was some talk that Highlanders no8 Nasi Manu would at last turn out for Tonga, but it seems his contract will preclude his involvement for now, though there remains a decent chance that he will opt in for the World Cup. Another notable absentee is Steve Mafi, who recently expressed his desire to use the Olympic loophole to qualify for Australia. Now that the IRB has ostensibly closed that option, hopefully we’ll see him back next year.
Augustine Pulu’s call-up to the All Blacks rules him out of the running at halfback, so it will be incumbent Taniela Moa and in-form Northland sniper Tane Takulua who vie for the crucial no9 jersey. Uncapped 7s playmaker Liueli Simote is the only locally based player in the team, and welcomed back after a long term knee problem is Kurt Morath, who has been getting match fitness with Waitemata since leaving Japan earlier this year. His form with the boot could have a huge bearing on whether they find success against closely ranked Georgia and the USA.
Perpignan centre Sione Piukala will hope to replicate his heroics of two seasons ago against Scotland alongside try-scorer Fetu’u Vainikolo, and will again be joined in the midfield by Siale Piutau. A newcomer on the wing is impressive Grenoble youngster Daniel Kilioni who fills in for Wasps’ Viliami Helu, who has struggled with injury this term. Vice-captain Vunga Lilo returns to add some counter-attacking punch from fullback.
It’s a challenging tour for the Tongans, and a good one to build confidence heading into the World Cup year. Head coach Mana Otai has struggled to get the best out of his players at times, but will have world-renowned Jake White along for the ride as technical advisor to help out. If the former Springbok supremo can help bring a bit of discipline to the famously combative side, they could give Scotland a few new nightmares to go with the ghosts of Aberdeen.
11/08 – vs Georgia – Mikheil Meskhi Stadium, Tbilisi
11/15 – vs USA – Kingsholm, Gloucester
11/22 – vs Scotland – Rugby Park, Kilmarnock