Islanders have talent to burn

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2005, 12:00am

Tongans may lack the pedigree of their Pacific neighbours but they should be handled with care

Tongans have featured heavily in the history of international sevens, most notably through the efforts of Jonah Lomu and Roy Kinikinilau.

Lomu and Kinikinilau, of course, starred with New Zealand and are among the dozens who realised that their rugby-playing potentials could not grow while wearing the red of Tonga.

Unfortunately, the Tongan Rugby Union has insufficient resources to attract all the quality players eligible to represent it, nor fully nurture the talents of those who do.

Consequently the most gifted from the Friendly Islands invariably endeavour to better themselves in New Zealand or Australia.

However, the 'Brawn Drain' does have a positive side, for Tonga has been able to recruit from the reservoir of Tongans deemed not quite good enough for the Kiwis - as well as one star who slipped through their fingers.

Tevita Tu'ifua had already established himself in Tonga's colours and was therefore ineligible to be capped by New Zealand when the Kiwis discovered his capabilities after he moved to Auckland.

A proven try-scorer in Auckland's National Provincial Championship (NPC) selection, this dynamic winger has been a sevens international since 1996 and played at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

North Harbour number eight Manako Tonga can also boast Test outings, while flanker Joseph Kolokihakaufisi is attached to Auckland's famous Ponsonby club.

Tevita Fifita, another loose forward, has been a big factor in North Otago's progression from NPC third division whipping boys to second division power. Only work-permit problems prevented him from joining leading English club Saracens last year and he is soon to link up with a Japanese club.

Midfielder Andrew Ma'ilei, like Manako Tonga, is in the North Harbour squad, having decided to concentrate upon rugby despite winning several international trophies at petanque, of all sports. Curiously, the squad contains a second dual international in Kiniconi Bakewa. He has played cricket for Fiji, where he is based.

Further global experience is provided by Sikuti Vunipola, who includes English clubs Nuneaton and Plymouth Albion on his CV.

Knowledge of English conditions undoubtedly helped him to excel at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Of the home-based members of the squad, Ofa Misa and Sione Langatau are the likeliest to play prominent roles. Misa is a test regular and Langatau has been a key man in the sevens line-up for two years.

Of the strong Pacific islands triumvirate, Tonga are the least burdened by the weight of expectations. Yet, Tongan players are just as naturally gifted as those of Samoa and Fiji, with power and flair in abundance. Their potential is considerable and with a little more self belief, the odd lucky bounce and Tu'ifua in top form, they may be more than plate contenders - the most realistic goal on form.

The creation of self belief within his players will be the biggest challenge confronting coach Manu Vanipola. Under his wing, the Tongans have shown steady improvement but the big breakthrough has remained elusive.

Team: 1. Manako Tonga, 2. Joseph Kolokihakaufisi, 3. Tevita Fifita, 4. Teumuli Kaufusi, 5. Sitaleki Mafile'o, 6. Ofa Misa, 7. Sikuti Vunipola, 8. Siale Lolhea, 9.Tevita Tu'ifua, 10. Andrew Ma'ilei, 11. Sione Langatau, 12. Kiniconi Bakewa.

WC flashback: 1993 - plate; 1997 - plate winners; 2001 - did not play.

Player to watch: Tevita Tu'ifua.

Numbers: 6,918 registered players (all men).

Prediction: Plate.


7 Facts

1 Tongans like their food. A favourite saying is 'eat unitl you're full, eat until you're tired, eat until you're dead!'

2 It is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies

3 The Mutiny on the Bounty took place there

4 King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV once tipped the scales at 444 pounds, but is now down to a relatively svelte 300

5 Tonga joined the United Nations in 1999

6 Its currency is the pa'anga, which equals to 100 seniti

7 Gave the world: Jonah Lomu