14 Oct 2019

RWC: Tonga look to future after USA win

6:47 am on 14 October 2019

Tonga have hinted at an exciting future after ending their Rugby World Cup campaign with a come from behind 31-19 victory over the United States.

But, despite the prospect of some superstar additions to the 'Ikale Tahi squad, players and coaches alike say major changes are needed off the field for the Kingdom to be able to reach their potential.

Siale Piutau led the Sipi Tau in is final test match for Tonga.

Siale Piutau led the Sipi Tau in is final test match for Tonga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Siegfried Fisi'ihoi scored the opening try in the 16th minute but a quickfire double from Mike Te'o gave the Americans a narrow 12-7 lead at half-time, despite the 'Ikale Tahi dominating territory, possession and metres gained.

Tonga's dominance finally paid off in the second half as Malietoa Hingano, captain Siale Piutau - in his final test appearance - and Telusa Veainu all dotted to down to secure a bonus point win.

Piutau, who also celebrated his 34th birthday on Sunday, was named player of the match and said it was a perfect send-off after an emotional week.

"Obviously I didn't want the focus to be on myself but as a team we've had great belief this whole tour. I know we didn't get results against the tier one nations but we saw the opportunities of this week and wanted to finish on a bang, obviously finish well for this group," Piutau said,

"But what better way to celebrate a birthday to not only get the win but get the accolades as well, and that's on the back of the boys playing well so I'm just grateful."

Tonga's players celebrate after retiring captain Siale Piutau (c) kicked a conversion in the final play of the game.

Tonga's players celebrate after retiring captain Siale Piutau (c) kicked a conversion in the final play of the game. Photo: AFP

Coach Toutai Kefu said his skipper has been a great servant for his country.

"If you look at a leader and what you want from a leader this guy next to me represents what leadership is. On and off the field he's been fantastic: humble, respectful and all the guys will follow him," Kefu said.

Piutau 2.0

Despite Piutau and flanker Sione Kalamafoni calling time on their test careers, Kefu believes the 'Ikale Tahi have a bright future to look forward to over the next four years.

Sione Kalamafoni was also playing his final test for the 'Íkale Tahi.

Sione Kalamafoni was also playing his final test for the 'Íkale Tahi. Photo: AFP

"There's enough young guys here and also during my tenure I've capped probably nearly close to 50 players," Kefu said.

"So, there is still a lot of talent out there that we haven't quite yet reached and there's also a select group of players who we need to qualify through the sevens Olympic qualification so I think looking forward to the next cycle it could be a very exciting team."

While Siale Piutau may be stepping down from test duty, Kefu said his younger brother, former All Black Charles Piutau, is among a group of players set to switch allegiance to Tonga by playing at the Oceania Sevens Championship, which doubles as a qualifying tournament for Tokyo 2020.

"There's a tournament in November in Fiji and that's our most likely only opportunity to qualify these players. We've identified I think six players that we'd like to qualify and cap and we're just dealing with their clubs now and also just getting through all the red tape and paperwork to make that a possibility," he said.

Current 'Ikale Tahi players Cooper Vuna and 'Atieli Pakalani qualified for Tonga in similar circumstances three years ago and Kefu said there are a number of ex All Blacks and Wallabies players keen to wear the red jersey.

"A few well known ones: Charles Piutau, George Moala to name a couple, Lopeti Timani to name three...I think they have to play 50 percent of all the games which means they just have to be on the field for 50 percent of all the games," he said.

Charles Piutau during the All Blacks v Manu Samoa test in Apia in 2015.

Charles Piutau during the All Blacks v Manu Samoa test in Apia in 2015. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Off-field drama

Toutai Kefu said if the 'Ikale Tahi are to truly prosper on the field and be able to push for more top level matches then change is needed in the way Tongan Rugby is governed and administered.

"We can always keep saying that we want this, we want that, we'd love this but we need to get our house in order and that's probably been our biggest issue so far," Kefu said.

"I mean, we've gone the last four years without a high performance manager, a rugby manager - it's basically me, myself and a couple of guys who actually don't work for the Union (that have) been running the team."

Tonga rugby coach Toutai Kefu.

Tonga rugby coach Toutai Kefu. Photo: Supplied/Tonga Rugby Union

Former test hooker Fe'ao Vunipola has been Interim CEO of the Tonga Rugby Union for the past four years but Kefu said he had no involvement with their current World Cup campaign and hasn't been cited for months.

"We just haven't been aligned for the last four years. He's had different other goals while my main goal has always been the 'Ikale Tahi team and making that the strongest possible," Kefu said.

"We've had some relationship breakdowns but over the last 12 months his interference has been to a minimum, so we've had some conversations in the past every now and then but you could say we're a lot more amicable now than we were at the start."

Kefu said if Tonga can sort out their own internal issues the benefits would flow through to the national team.

"World Rugby and Oceania Rugby have been heavily involved in trying to help us provide good governance and good leadership but we've got a really old constitution that requires a board to run the Union and I think the constitution probably needs to be really looked at because some of the stuff that we still do, in terms of the union, are really draconian, really old and probably outdated," said Kefu.

Tonga Rugby CEO, former international and proud dad, Fe'ao Vunipola

Tonga Rugby Union Interim CEO Fe'ao Vunipola. Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

'Ikale Tahi fullback Telusa Veainu, who plays for Leicester Tigers in England, said the players are also keen to see some reform back in Tonga.

"Sometimes it's just frustrating, to be honest, to see them put all the resource into their (own interests). It's just a big money thing, isn't it? Everyone can see it," Veainu said.

"They didn't give us any help with the (World Cup). I think the best thing for us we can do is strike and we don't want to do that but if something doesn't change. Our CEO doesn't even turn up - he's gone AWOL - so we don't even know where he is."

Kefu's contract is up later this year but the former Wallaby said he he would be open to extending his time in charge if he can be given some additional support.

"I don't think I can do this without a proper CEO or a Rugby Manager. The last four years just doing it by myself it's just been too much - me and my assistant manager, who only works during the campaigns, there's a lot of burden there and we just need help," Kefu said.

"If we can get a Rugby Manager in or a CEO that aligns then definitely [will] look at staying on."

no caption

Telusa Veainu became the first Tongan international to score three tries at a Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP