6 Apr 2021

Tonga rugby coach Kefu 'grateful' for second chance

12:12 pm on 6 April 2021

Tonga rugby coach Toutai Kefu believes the future is bright for the 'Ikale Tahi now the sport finally has some stability off the field.

Toutai Kefu prior to the All Blacks vs 'Ikale Tahi test in Hamilton in 2019.

Toutai Kefu prior to the All Blacks vs 'Ikale Tahi test in Hamilton in 2019. Photo: AFP

The Tonga Rugby Union signed a tripartite agreement with World Rugby and the Tonga government seven months ago, after the global governing body pulled its financial support because of governance and administration issues.

Funding had since resumed, with Kefu reappointed until the end of 2023.

With a new administration in place and a fresh three year mandate, Kefu was "grateful" to be back in charge and believed he could build on his previous four years at the helm.

"I thought myself and my staff did a really good job considering the obstacles that we faced along the way, and I think they looked at it from a perspective if I could have proper assistance and guidance, in terms of a governance and administration point of view, they thought that we could go better."

The 'Ikale Tahi ended their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign on a winning note against the USA.

Tonga's last international match was at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

As part of his reappointment, the Kolomotu'a-born coach would spend at least four months per year in Tonga to act as a technical director for the union, assisting and educating local coaches.

The Kolomotu'a-born coach did not see eye to eye with former CEO Fe'ao Vunipola but believed the new set-up was moving in the right direction.

"That's all I'm focused on is looking forward, getting to work with a bunch of new boys again and seeing where we can take this team," he said.

"I think this team, the potential is enormous and if we have a little bit of luck along the way and be able to qualify some players that want to play for Tonga, if we get all those ducks aligned I think we can really take this team to somewhere where it's never been before."

The immediate focus was on finalising an 'Ikale Tahi squad for two Rugby World Cup qualifiers against Samoa in July, which had been moved to New Zealand because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tonga were edged 25-17 by Samoa in Apia.

Tonga and Samoa will play two Rugby World Cup qualifiers in New Zealand in July. Photo: World Rugby / Trina Edwards

With the international borders still closed, Kefu remained unsure which players he would have available for selection, but joked that being the coach of Tonga had made him good at adapting to things.

"I'm basically running with two squads: a squad that's locally based - New Zealand, Tonga, Australia - and an overall squad where those Northern Hemisphere players are able to make it to New Zealand. There's so much uncertainty: what you've got to plan for is plan for that uncertainty and do the best you can."

There was also uncertainty over plans for a group of former All Blacks and Wallabies players to switch their international allegiance to Tonga.

Players with eligibility for more than one country could switch their international allegiance by participating in Olympic qualifying events provided they had a passport for the second country and completed a stand down period of three years.

Charles Piutau played the last of his 17 tests for the All Blacks in 2015.

Bristol Bears star Charles Piutau wants to play for Tonga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Final Olympic Sevens Qualifier had been earmarked as a chance for former All Blacks Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa to complete their switch from New Zealand to Tonga.

That now looks unlikely, with the Monaco tournament clashing with the semi-finals of the English Premiership on 19-20 June.

"Malakai is probably the only high-profile player that we know that looks like going to the tournament - we're still in constant discussions with him," Kefu said.

"It's unfortunate about Charles. We still haven't got the exact date of the tournament and there may be an option of maybe flying Charles in just for the day or day and a half to maybe just qualify him and get him on the field...I know he's got finals time around that time so we still haven't ruled him out.

"There's George Moala as well who's at Clermont and they look like they'll be in the midst of finals as well (in the French Top 14) around that Monaco tournament."

Controversial former Wallabies fullback Israel Folau also expressed an interest in switching his rugby allegiance to Tonga, Kefu said.

The dual rugby and league international played 73 tests for Australia before his contract was torn up in 2019 for posting a meme on social media that said hell awaited "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers" and other groups.

Israel Folau returned to Australia from the Catalan Super League side.

Israel Folau is back in Australia after a year playing rugby league in France. Photo: Photosport

He's back in Brisbane after a year playing rugby league in France and would be welcomed into a Tongan squad, Kefu said, that supported his right to express his personal views.

"He's Tongan, he's a bloody good player - we're more than happy to have him and accommodate him...we'd have no concerns. We all grew up the same way. We all went to Sunday School and then there's different divisions of religion that we all grew up in. We certainly all support Israel and his views."

However, any potential switch would not pay immediate dividends. The former Waratahs star, who was also on the radar of the Tongan rugby league team, last played for the Wallabies in November 2018 and would not have completed the required three-year stand-down in time to represent the kingdom at the Olympic Sevens Qualifier in Monaco.

Meanwhile Kefu hoped to finalise his wider coaching team in the coming weeks and said, while there would be a few changes, he was trying to have as much consistency as possible.