5 Nov 2018

Sport: 'Ikale Tahi players out to secure World Cup spots

12:52 pm on 5 November 2018

Tonga rugby coach Toutai Kefu says this month's Northern Hemisphere tour is a chance for fringe players to force their way into World Cup consideration.

The 'Ikale Tahi take on the French Barbarians in Bordeaux this weekend before tests against Wales and Georgia.

Leon Fukofuka fires a pass during Tonga's training camp in Madrid last week.

Leon Fukofuka fires a pass during Tonga's training camp in Madrid last week. Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

Toutai Kefu said he already knows the bulk of what his 2019 World Cup squad will look like so the next few weeks are a chance for others to press their claims.

"We've got a group of players that we know that we'll take to the World Cup next year and we might look to rest some of those, depending on our squad, but first and foremost we want to win and we want to play well - that's the most important thing," he said.

"If we get an opportunity to rest some of the older players we may do that and give some of the younger players a go.

"I'd like to see Leon Fukofuka play a lot more - he hasn't had much experience at this level so the more we can play him the better it is for us in the long run."

Auckland halfback Leon Fukofuka is back in the Tongan squad.

Leon Fukofuka impressed for Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Lock and midfield are other areas where the 'Ikale Tahi are hoping to develop more depth.

Toutai Kefu said Steve Mafi and Leva Fifita have developed a strong pairing but with 30-test veteran Joe Tu'ineau having just turned 37 their second-row stocks are also in need of replenishing.

"He's still in our plans for next year but he's getting a bit long in the tooth old Joe and he's been around for a while but that's what makes his important as well, his experience is fantastic," he said.

"He's just coming back from injury so we've let him play with his club - he's actually just moved to a new club as well but Steve's been the backbone of the forward pack for a long time and Leva Fifita's been coming along really well over the last couple of years so you would think those two would be our starting locks.

"We've also got Sam Lousi from the Hurricanes to hopefully commit next year and (Blues utility) Jimmy Tupou is just coming back from injury...so they're on the radar as well."

Blues lock/flanker Jimmy Tupou wants to represent the 'Ikale Tahi.

Blues lock/flanker Jimmy Tupou remains on Tonga's radar. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Twenty-two-year-old Hawkes Bay lock Sam Ulufonua is another looking to make his mark in his first tour with the team.

"He's turned us down a couple of times just due to some family reasons but he's finally committed," Kefu said.

"He did in ok in the Mitre 10 Cup (in New Zealand) - he got some regular game-time. He still needs a few things to work on but...we don't have many second rowers and locks around so it's an opportunity for him to stake a claim for next year."

'Ikale Tahi newcomer Sam Ulufonua.

'Ikale Tahi newcomer Sam Ulufonua. Photo: HBRU

Front-rowers Siua Halanukonuka and Vunipola Fifita, loose forwards Sione Kalamafoni and Nasi Manu and midfield duo Nafi Tu'itavake and Cooper Vuna are also absent this month, while fullback Telusa Veainu could yet be a late inclusion if he recovers fully from a head knock.

"Ideally I wanted to pick the strongest team possible and we wanted to get pretty much a dress-rehearsal of the Rugby World Cup squad," Kefu said.

"The more time we can spend together the better it is moving forward to next year. I've pretty much got an idea of what the squad's going to look like - there may be some 50/50 decisions made on two or three positions - but in saying that you can't help injury, that's the nature of the game.

"So we've picked what we think is the next strongest and also included some guys that may have a bit of potential to force themselves into the World Cup squad next year."

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