Saturday cannot come quickly enough for Tonga who have Ireland in the crosshairs

‘We will keep hitting them back … throw everything we have at them,’ says the Pacific nation’s most capped player

Looking out a window at Roland Garros and Longchamp, there is a cinematic quality to a drive that then wends its way past two Parisian sporting meccas, through the Bois de Boulogne — the biggest park in the French capital — before finally climbing up to the affluent Hauts-de-Seine district.

The thunderstorm and lightning on arrival at the Rueil Malmaison hotel base of Tonga is perhaps a harbinger of the fire and brimstone that the Pacific Islanders will bring this weekend.

It’s an impression gleaned from Tonga scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua who made 102 appearances for the Newcastle Falcons, played with Toulon and Agen, will wear the colours of Mont-de-Marsan next season and as a teenager squared off against Ireland centre Bundee Aki in New Zealand.

Bundee Aki

The 32-year-old Takalua explained: “Bundee Aki, I used to play against him, he [was with] Counties Manukau and I was with Northland, at under-18 and under-20 levels, a couple of times. Since then, both going different ways, he is at the top with the number one side in the world and here I am. He [Aki] is a great player, a good one for Ireland in the way he played last weekend. I did not watch the game to be honest but watched highlights; he is a key player for Ireland.”


Saturday, at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, will be Tonga’s first match of the tournament and there’s no mistaking how much they’re looking forward to a crack off Ireland.

Takulua, Tonga’s most capped player admitted: “We are pretty excited to run up against the number one team in the world, we know we only have to beat them once and this is our opportunity. We are ready to get going, to throw (in) everything we have been practising and working for. I am sure the rest of the boys will front up.”

These words trail off in a manner which suggests that anything less simply isn’t possible with the group.

Tonga’s reputation for ferocious tackling is merited but to there is so much more now that Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa, Augustine Pulu, Pita Ahki Adam Coleman and Vaea Fifita will provide in terms of quality in attack; George Moala too when he returns from his five-match suspension.

Takulua said: “Charles [Piutau] and other players Malakai Fekitoa, Adam Coleman etc, they bring a lot of experience with them, play a really high level of rugby. They bring learning skills which the boys are quick to watch. When they talk, we listen, they bring a different type of rugby with skills. It’s going really great like the team cannot wait to get out there and express themselves.”

The scrumhalf smiled when pressed to recall how his village honoured him when he went to his first World Cup in 2015. They painted cars and properties with his name. The question was posed about whether they still hold him in that esteem.

“They were hot back then, then you know our people, when they are hot, they are hot, but when they are cold, they don’t know where they are at. But the feeling is coming back, supporters in Tonga and those all over the world are getting warm now close to our first match and I think they are still doing that painting the cars.”

Big send-off

The squad were paraded through villages on their way to the airport in Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital. It took them over an hour for a journey that would normally take a fraction of that time. Takulua plans for it to be longer when they go back, if they can manage to grab a result or two in France.

“To see the Tongan people, their support kind of gave us a boost, to send us here to France. They followed us on the floats going to the airport. It took us over four hours to get there. It was awesome going through all the villages. We will beat the four-hour parade back to the capital [when we return from France].“

Tonga will not look to subdue their natural instincts in playing rugby. While they have a deserved reputation as fearsome tacklers, it would be wrong to label them as just a destructive force. Takulua admitted that the coaches had provided them with a game plan but within that framework, they would look to bring huge physicality.

“We will keep hitting them back, put pressure on them, throw everything we have at them,” he said.

They won’t go down wondering, that’s for sure.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer