Tonga: Rugby World Cup 2023 review

Tonga: Rugby World Cup 2023 review

The 'Ikale Tahi brought fight, flair and famous faces to the Rugby World Cup in France but had to wait for their final Pool B game to savour victory.


Abiding memory

As the Tonga squad gathered in a huddle to acknowledge the end of their Rugby World Cup campaign, a 45-24 win over Romania in Lille, it was a delightful scene as the players' children ran around the lush turf at Stade Pierre-Mauroy, capturing perfectly the family feel of this competition.


Try of the tournament

"Here goes the 151 kilo juggernaut!" screamed the match commentator as 'Big' Ben Tameifuna thundered through the dark-blue jerseys of Scotland to score at Stade de Nice. To witness giant lock Richie Gray and team-mate Kyle Steyn on either side of the charging Tongan tank, like men trying to halt a runaway car on a steep hill, was a sight to behold. With that try, Tameifuna showed there was more to his game than mere bulk and brawn. The captain's attack was so well timed and at the perfect angle to make defence futile.

Quotes that said it all

"I’ve been able to give the players who come in a real bloody good experience. Even though they have lost three games, they have had the time of their lives." Those the words of head coach Toutai Kefu following his last match in charge of Tonga, that win over The Oaks.


Man of the moment

Solomone Kata. The energetic 28-year-old Leicester Tigers-bound wing scored a try against Scotland, was instrumental in Tameifuna's against the same opponents and ran in two against Romania to finish his team's top scorer.


One for the future

It has to be Kyren Taumoefolau. The long-legged 20-year-old full-back weighs in at 80kg, a little over half the mass of Tameifuna, but he has pace to burn and a smile to light up a stadium. His 71st-minute try in Tonga's final Pool B match was scintillating. Taumoefolau had only been on the pitch four minutes in Lille when he ran in from 25 metres to score in the corner on his Rugby World Cup debut. "With his speed he looks like he’s gliding as he runs," said Salesi Piutau of his fellow full-back afterwards. "I’m excited to see how his career pans out."


From the Touchline

"The [2011] earthquakes in Christchurch brought my businesses down," Tonga's defence coach Dale MacLeod told reporters as he explained how the tragedy had triggered his move into rugby. The automotive and marine engineer's time found a new use for his skills.

"I was self-employed, I had 12 staff," said MacLeod. "How you interact with them and how you treat them, no different to a rugby team. Being well organised and well planned. I used to race boats, that was the same, everything had to be right. I was at a rugby club and they said, 'We want you to come here full-time.' Once I found my staff new jobs, I turned to rugby. Everything I was learning then I can apply here."


Key statistics

"My players come from 20-plus programmes – the Top 14, the English Premiership, the URC, the ITM Cup, even the second division in Japan. We have players scattered all over the place. Look at Ireland – 95 per cent of their team come from one team." Kefu's sums are an exaggeration but his sentiment holds true, that Tonga's coaches have little time to develop a system, whereas Ireland benefit from the huge Leinster cohort within the squad.



Tonga were always going to be up against it at this Rugby World Cup, having been drawn in the same pool as reigning champions South Africa, the world's top-ranked nation Ireland and fifth-ranked Scotland. Players of the calibre of Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa have raised their standard but even the nous of World Cup winner Kefu could not alter the 'Ikale Tahi's record of never getting beyond the pool stage. Fiji and Samoa have reached Rugby World Cup quarter-finals: the challenge for Tonga to emulate their Pacific Islanders' feat will fall to a new coach with Kefu stepping down.


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