Sat 19 Sep Tonga v Georgia, Kingsholm Stadium, noon BST
Tues 29 Sept Tonga v Namibia, Sandy Park, 4.45pm BST
Sun 4 Oct Argentina v Tonga, King Power Stadium, 2.30pm BST
Fri 9 Oct New Zealand v Tonga, St. James’ Park, 8pm BST
Odds to win World Cup
Pool C is likely to be the least competitive of the World Cup’s opening round, in terms of qualification. Tonga will almost certainly not beat Argentina and the likelihood of them getting close to the All Blacks is marginally greater than that of London Welsh winning the Premiership. And London Welsh are not in the Premiership. Their campaign is likely to come down to a contest with Georgia for third spot in the pool as the fifth team – traditional whipping boys Namibia – should provide little more than try celebration practice for all four of their opponents.
Like their fellow South Sea Islanders Samoa and Fiji, Tonga’s game is traditionally one of intense speed and physicality but with a tendency to lose their composure discipline up front – they and Canada are the only sides to pick up three red cards in the history of the tournament. However, even this approach could be hindered this year by the mix of an ageing squad and a lack of experience among the younger players. They could be painfully blown away in the final quarter against sharper opposition: the average age of their forwards is 31, they have 10 players over 32 and three over 35.
That said, recent results have been good: Fiji and Scotland are the only teams to beat them since 2013 and Mana Otai, the head coach, could hardly have asked for more than the third-placed finish they achieved at the Pacific Nations Cup. Unsurprisingly, Otai has included the three players who made impressive debuts in the tournament in his squad: Telusa Veainu, Viliami Tahitu’a and Sosefo Ma’ake.
Of course, in those two years, Scotland are the only Tier One opposition they have faced. Nonetheless, Tonga have a recent history of upsetting first-rate opponents: they suffocated Wales in Cardiff in 2013 (admittedly this was almost certainly the worst Welsh display this writer has seen), coming away with enormous credit in a 17-7 defeat. Most famously, though, they created the greatest shock in World Cup history when they beat France 19-14 in 2011.
Despite the win they missed out on a first ever quarter-final on points difference, having previously suffered a disappointing 25-20 defeat by Canada. In a sense the 2011 campaign’s blend of romance, missed opportunities and ultimate disappointment was as quintessentially Tongan as they come.
One thing Tonga will not lack is experience of playing in England. Seven of Otai’s squad play in the Aviva Premiership, as well as the Doncaster Knights fly-half, Latiume Fosita, and the outgoing Exeter flyer Fetu’u Vainikolo, who will join Oyonnax next season and his team-mate Soane Tonga’uiha.
Tonga’uiha will probably be the most familiar face among the squad for European audiences. Between 2006 and 2013 the explosive 6ft 3in, 20st 8lb prop became a fan favourite at Northampton, where he was nicknamed Tiny. After signing from Bedford, he formed a formidable front row with Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati that was instrumental in helping Saints to the 2010-11 Heineken Cup final. His predilection for breaking the gainline and scoring tries even from 60 metres earned him a big-money move to Racing Métro two years ago but now, at 33, he is entering the twilight of his career and his effectiveness, in the loose especially, is greatly reduced.
The Ikale Tahi are captained by another veteran, the flanker Nili Latu, who was one of the stars of the 2007 tournament. He has signed for Newcastle Falcons for the 2015-16 Premiership season and his experience will be vital, especially when going toe-to-toe with the monstrous Mamuka Gorgodze in the Pool C opener against Georgia. However Latu, too, is 33 and has spent the last eight years playing for NEC Green Rockets in the relatively uncompetitive Japanese Top League. There is therefore a large question mark over how well the team’s leader can manage the step-up in intensity; this is unlikely to be answered until the tournament proper begins. Latu’s Newcastle teammate, the scrum-half Tane Takulua, is also in the squad and will be looking to impress after a strong season for the Falcons.
Others recognisable to fans of British domestic rugby include the giant number eight Opeti Fonua, a rumbling ball-carrier who has recently joined Leicester Tigers from London Welsh, and the former Worcester, Edinburgh and Gloucester hooker Aleki Lutui. He will compete for the No2 jersey with Exeter’s Elvis Taione. There are also places for the props Halane Aulika and Sila Puafisi of London Irish and Gloucester respectively, as well as Puafisi’s club colleague Tevita Halaifonua and Edinburgh’s William Helu, who joins the Scottish side from Wasps after the tournament.
Curiously Otai has named only 30 players in his squad – 17 forwards and 13 backs – although he is able to add a final player at a later stage and is expected to do so. There have been rumours that the Australia rugby league international Andrew Fifita could convert to union, where he would be eligible to represent Tonga, for the tournament. However his lack of familiarity, having played at prop in the 13-man code, would pose an enormous risk.
Tonga’s 30-man World Cup squad
Props Halani Aulika (London Irish), Tevita Mailau (Perpignan), Sila Puafisi (Gloucester), Sona Taumalolo (Grenoble), Soane Tonga’uiha (Oyonnax).
Hookers Aleki Lutui (Ampthill RFC), Paula Ngauamo (Mont de Marsan), Elvis Taione (Exeter Chiefs).
Locks Lua Lokotui (Béziers), Steve Mafi (Western Force), Joe Tuineau (Dax).
Back-rows Opeti Fonua (Leicester Tigers), Sione Kalamafoni (Gloucester), Nili Latu (Newcastle Falcons, capt), Viliami Ma’afu (Oyonnax), Jack Ram (Auckland Blues), Hale T-Pole (Otago).
Scrum-halves Samisoni Fisilau (Jersey), Sosefo Ma’ake (Havelu Bulldogs), Sonatane Takulua (Newcastle Falcons).
Fly-halves Latiume Fosita (Doncaster), Kurt Morath (Biarritz).
Centres Sione Piukala (Perpignan), Siale Piatau (Yamaha), Viliami Tahitu’a (Northland).
Wings Tevita Halaifonua (Gloucester), William Helu (Edinburgh), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Oyonnax), Telusa Veainu (Melbourne Rebels).
Full-backs Vungakoto Lilo (Montauban).