Several Moana Pasifika players are expected to be heading to the 2023 Rugby World Cup with the Ikale Tahi of Tonga in September.
That's the indication from Tongan head coach Toutai Kefu, who says the Tongan players in the Moana outfit have improved immensely in the last two years the team has been part of the Super Rugby Pacific competition.
Kefu is expected to announce Tonga's squad to meet Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Romania in France this coming weekend.
Speaking with RNZ Pacific from Brisbane this week, the former Wallaby loose forward said he and his panel of coaches have been following the performances of Moana Pasifika players and those playing around the world.
He said the two years of being conditioned in the Super Rugby Pacific professional rugby environment has helped the players and the competition has offered players the opportunity to play at a higher level.
"We are going to take a good portion of those Tongan players from Moana to the World Cup and those players we've watched closely over the last two years have improved significantly," he said.
Moana Pasifika's 2023 captain Solomone Funaki, who won four awards at the Moana Pasifika 20223 Awards Evening in Auckland on Tuesday, is a top contender for a World Cup spot with the Ikale Tahi.
Funaki, a tough loose forward, won the supreme award - the Moana Man - in a season which saw him step up into the captaincy with maiden skipper Sekope Kepu out for the season.
Funaki could also be in the running as Ikale Tahi captain at the World Cup.
He finished the regular season as the competition's fourth best tackler with 173 (95 percent success rate) in 13 games, made 129 tackles, won 11 turnovers, scored three tries and carried the ball 141 metres past contact.
He also won the Tangaloa Award for Best Defender, the Savae La'auli Sir Michael Jones Forward of the Year and the Players Player of the Year.
Props Abraham Pole and Sosefo Apikotoa, flanker Penitoa Finau, winger Tima Fainga'anuku, Fine Inisi and fullback William Havili look set to also get the call up for national duties.
Europe-based players Malakai Fekitoa, Israel Folau, Charles Piutau, George Moala and Vaea Fifita are all available to play for the Ikale Tahi and Kefu says they are in the radar for selection.
"Those players are busy, undergoing training at the moment.We will announce the team this weekend and those players are all available for us," Kefu said.
Fekitoa, Piutau, Moala and Fifita are all former All Blacks while Folau is a former Wallaby.
The players became available for Tonga after World Rugby approved new eligibility rules that allowed players to play for their home nations after having represented other national teams.
Kefu and his coaching team have been monitoring players that they had identified over the past few months.
Once named, the squad members will assemble in Nuku'alofa in early July.
They will have a warm-up game against Australia A at Te'ufaiva Park on July 14 before going into the Pacific Nations Cup with the Flying Fijians and Manu Samoa.
Following the Cup series the Ikale Tahi will play two home Tests against Canada in their only other warm ups before flying to France.
Kefu says their Pool C is a tough one.
"It's a tough pool. We got the best teams in the world, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and then Romania. All really hard games," he said.
"But we've got a new team now and we got some X-factors and we will be able to throw some punches I reckon and I think we just need to come up with a really good game plan and a blueprint to win."
Tonga will play their opening World Cup game against Ireland in Nantes on September 16.
Moana Pasifika Awards
Moana Man of the Year - Solomone Funaki
Players Player of the Year - Solomone Funaki
Savae La'auli Sir Michael Jones Trophy for Forward of the Year - Solomone Funaki
Tuifa'asisina Sir Bryan Williams for Back of the Year - Levi Aumua
Fans Player of the Year - Timoci Tavatavanawai
Niu Award for Rookie of the Year - Miracle Faiilagi
Maui Award for Attacking Player of the Year - Timoci Tavatavanawai
Tangaloa Award for Defensive Player of the Year - Solomone Funaki
Moana Pasifika Under 20s Player of the Year - John Samuelu
Tautua Award - Christian Lealiifano
Galue Award - Samuel Slade