It hasn’t been the easiest of periods for the paradise island nation of Tonga, somewhat isolated from the rest of the world during the pandemic with many unable to return home for nearly two years.
In difficult times people look to sport for hope and in the ‘Ikale Tahi, the national rugby side, the people of Tonga have a group of players renowned for playing forward-dominated rugby with a side order of flair.
Ranked 13th in the world, Tonga’s series of autumn opponents are varied. Last weekend they succumbed to a 60-14 loss at the hands of Scotland but, from this weekend, they’ll face the might of England, the unpredictable French Barbarians and a physical Romanian outfit.
“We believe in our forwards,” Aleki Lutui, Tonga’s most capped hooker, told City A.M. “Our front five will be able to compete with England, we have a strong set of forwards now and with the backs available to us we should really be able to at least front up on Saturday.”
“We generally rely on our physicality, this is our identity. If we can get on the front foot using our physicality and give the backs the ball, I’m sure we can compete in a good game against England.”
England have played Tonga on three occasions, winning all three, with Tonga scoring an average of just 11 points and shipping 46.
A modest crowd of 32,000 watched as Tonga lost to Scotland at Murrayfield last Saturday, less than 50 per cent capacity. Tomorrow, however, Tonga will run out in front of a crowd upwards of 80,000 at Twickenham.
Tickets are usually hard to come by for England matches, with much of the availability restricted by corporate seats and high prices. For this Tonga Test, demand in hospitality is lower and tickets are therefore cheaper throughout the ground.
“I played at Twickenham for the Pacific Islanders side in 2008 [England won 39-13] and it’s always a good ground to play at. They love their rumbling packs and set pieces,” added former Worcester and Gloucester man Lutui. “There’s a few new boys in the squad and this will be their first time in that atmosphere.
“We have a mix of experience and inexperience but for those younger players, it’s going to be great for them as they start their journeys as internationals.”
For an England team coming off the back of two summer wins and a dreadful fifth-place finish at this year’s Six Nations, fitness and pace will set the tone.
“England’s fitness level is key. They are going to play the Eddie Jones way and you know it’ll all be about tempo,” said Lutui, who represented Tonga at three World Cups.
“From No1 to No23, I expect them to play quick and run us around. We have some big boys, Jones knows that.
“Now that there are more Tongans playing in fully professional leagues, like in England and France, our boys are fitter too.
“When we defend for long periods, fatigue sets in so we need to make sure we take our chances with the ball and punish England’s mistakes.”
Aged 43, Lutui still turns out for Ampthill, in England’s Championship, and he’s passing on his Tongan philosophy to the next generation of rugby players.
“Rugby in Tonga is done in such an easy and simple way,” he said. “We went to encourage players to express themselves and play to the best of their ability. So whatever talent a player has, they need to make sure they use it. And on Saturday for example, that talent could be the difference between winning and losing the contest in the game.”
Tonga are by no means favourites against England, nor will they be the next time these two sides meet.
But in the experience they’re giving to the youngsters and in the wisdom offered by more senior players, Tonga might argue they’re looking beyond this autumn and laying the foundations for the future.