24 Jul 2021

Teammates turned rivals in Tonga vs Cook Islands clash

11:30 am on 24 July 2021

Club teammates will become international rivals in today's Rugby World Cup qualifying match between Tonga and the Cook Islands.

It was only three weeks ago that 'Ikale Tahi lock Semisi Paea and Cook Islands centre Junior Raia were lining up alongside each other for Ngongotaha in the Bay of Plenty club competition.

Today both players will make their test match debut, but in different colours.

The 22 year old Paea was first called into the Tongan squad in the lead-up to their test against the All Blacks earlier this month and was surprised head coach Toutai Kefu even knew who he was.

"Getting the call-up was a life-changing moment, really...I don't think he knew who I was, I was just hidden away in Rotorua in the Bay so I didn't really think anybody was going to know me from there."

Semisi Paea.

Semisi Paea. Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

Paea was born in Tonga but now calls Rotorua home, after moving to New Zealand with his family when he was six.

He said there were a few tears shed when he revealed he would be playing this weekend.

"They were really overwhelmed, especially my partner and my mum and dad - they were really stoked," he said.

"Mum was crying on the phone and dad as well. This is a dream come true for me really to represent my country."

The Bay of Plenty Development lock is looking forward to going up against his club teammate Junior Taia and said the pair been in regular contact throughout the week.

"He joined us this year, played a big role in the club. I've been mingling around with him and stuff...yeah we've been messaging each other and wishing each other all the best and that but come Saturday it's all go."

Taia's parents moved from the Cook Islands to Rotorua before he was born and the 26 year old said he had enjoyed being able to reconnect with his culture.

He previously played for the Cook Islands Sevens team but will make his full international debut this afternoon.

"It's been unreal actually, going from club rugby into this set-up. It's kind of pretty much semi professional for me - it's been a big eye-opener and I'm loving it actually."

Ngongotaha President Jodie Wharekura is proud of both players and will be making the two and a half hour journey north to Pukekohe to cheer them on.

With a horse in each race, he admitted the club's loyalties could be divided.

"Mate I think it's going to be split," he laughed.

"I think there's a fair amount of people that will back Junior and there's a fair amount, the younger ones, will back Semisi but at the end of the day we're backing both of them - as far as the admin and the running of the club, our committee.

"We're just so happy that we've got boys involved in that international stage."

Tonga perform the Sipi Tau.

Tonga perform the Sipi Tau. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Meanwhile there is set to be rival camps watching the match at the Petone Rugby Club in Wellington.

Club teammates Tupou Sopoaga and Mateaki Kafatolu won't just be lining up in opposite teams this afternoon - they'll be going head to head at openside flanker.

"It's pretty special for our club in Petone," explained Sopoaga, who will captain his country on test debut this afternoon.

"Mateaki is a Wellington statesman and I'm just really glad that he finally gets to showcase his talent on the world stage, because he deserves it."

Tongan flanker Mateaki Kafatolu playing against Samoa.

Tongan flanker Mateaki Kafatolu playing against Samoa. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The 29 year old Sopoaga is one of 14 debutants in the Cook Islands squad, including his younger brothers Toka and Zeke (who also plays for Petone).

He revealed the mind-games with Wellington Lions flanker Kafatolu has extended to friendly banter around the breakdown and even their accommodation.

"We've been sending videos to each other. I've been telling him I'm gonna try and karate kick him in the ruck, as a joke, and he says he's gonna beat me in the ruck too," said the former Highlanders and Southland loose forward.

"But we're older guys: we're just happy that both of us get to play for our countries but also give each other heaps of stick as well. We've been laughing to see who's got the least resources for each team and I think we're winning so far."

All or nothing in the road to Rugby World Cup 2023

The Cook Islands are ranked 53rd in the world - compared to Tonga at 15th - but Sopoaga insisted the team genuinely believed they could pull off an upset.

"We're going into this thinking we're going to win so the boys here have been training as if (we will win)," he said.

"We're not here to fill the numbers or book a slot on Sky Sport - we're actually here to book a slot in the World Cup. The mentality from all the boys here is...we're going to give Tonga a real good run for their money and hopefully we can get over the line."

Tupou, Toka, Lima and Zeke Sopoaga are all involved with the Cook Islands team.

Tupou, Toka, Lima and Zeke Sopoaga are all involved with the Cook Islands team. Photo: Instagram/limasopoaga

Tonga have made a late change, with veteran prop Sona Taumalolo called up to the bench following an injury to Jethro Felemi.

The cult hero, who will turn 40 in November, played the last of his 20 tests for Tonga at the 2015 World Cup.

Sopoaga is expecting some sore bodies at the end of 80 minutes.

"We understand that they're going to bring a lot of physicality and we're just going to match that," he said.

"Both sides, at the end of the day, they play with a lot of heart. We're just going to go out there and show them that our heart is just as big as them.

" Although we're ranked (53rd) and they're ranked 15th we just honestly believe that we can match fire with fire."

It was a family affair for Cook Islands reps James Kora and his cousins Toko and Tupou Sopoaga.

James Kora and his cousins Toko and Tupou Sopoaga after the Cook Islands game against Tasman. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Vinnie Wylie

After back to back defeats by Samoa, coach Toutai Kefu said his side aren't in a position to take any opponent lightly.

"It's going to be more about us, getting our game right. Nothing changes, we're going to play the same gameplan," he said.

"There's a few opportunities that we've identified but we don't want to change too much, just build on what we've been doing and be better at what we've been doing."

The winner of today's one-off clash will advance to the Asia/Pacific playoff against Hong Kong, Korea or Malaysia for a place at the 2023 World Cup in France.