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'They don't want us to be too competitive': Tonga coach Toutai Kefu laments 'lost' team
SYDNEY, 05 DECEMBER 2018 (STUFF NZ) ---Super Rugby and European stars, as well as All Blacks, could have played for Tonga in a different world.
Tonga coach Toutai Kefu isn't a whinger.
He will play the hand given to him and promises Tonga will be "super competitive" at the Rugby World Cup next year, despite being in a tough pool that also includes Argentina, France and England.
But a sense of injustice gnaws away at the former Wallabies No 8 as he ponders the Tongans who won't be available to him in Japan next year, including All Blacks Vaea Fifita and Shannon Frizell.
It leads him to one conclusion: Tier 1 nations, particularly the Home Unions, see Tonga as a threat and don't want them to be.
"There's a feeling that they don't want us to be too competitive," Kefu told Stuff, referencing the eligibility rules that prevented Tonga from using the likes of former All Black Charles Piutau.
"I had a list of about 10-12 players who were ready to come and play for us.
"That gives us a good chance of making the quarterfinals in the World Cup next year.
"If we make the quarterfinals that's obviously taking someone's spot.
"I think they are just worried about that scenario and the powerbrokers that run the game, they are represented by the Home Unions.
"They see us as a threat, and maybe they just don't want that competitiveness in the World Cup, which I think is very wrong."
Kefu had hoped that Piutau and about 10 others would be free to play for Tonga by qualifying via an Olympics Sevens tournament before the World Cup, but that door was shut on the Tongans' faces.
He readily admits Tonga have their own "issues and challenges" but says having those players deemed ineligible for the next World Cup "is just another kick in the guts really".
"We just have to keep going along and there is some major changes being made," he said.
"I can moan and complain as long as I want, and I have for the last 18 months, but you just need to move forward and hopefully someone can see some sense down the line, that they need to re-look at this eligibility rule."
The players unavailable to Kefu aren't just restricted to those who wanted to qualify via the Sevens route.
First, there are the Tongans who have been adopted by other countries, such as Fifita, Frizell, Malakai Fekitoa and Amanaki Mafi (Japan).
Second, there are the Tongan-qualified players such as Charles Piutau (Bristol) and Frank Halai (Pau), who have played for the All Blacks but have either moved on or fallen out of favour
Third, there are the players who are Tonga qualified but have been capped by a Tier 1 nation or have thus far made themselves unavailable because of the prospect of being capped by a Tier 1 nation.
Here, Kefu cites Crusaders utility David Havili, who he was considering as a playmaker option, promising young Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho, who was known to be on the All Blacks' radar this year, and former Chiefs wing Toni Pulu, who has moved to the Brumbies and has made himself available to the Wallabies.
Add them up and you have a formidable group of players.
For Tonga, the frustration is greater because a high proportion of these players won't even make it to the Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks could conceivably overlook Fifita, Frizell, Taukei'aho and Havili - and even someone such as Ngani Laumape who has previously talked with pride about his Tongan heritage.
Piutau and Fekitoa are already unavailable.
In other words, the Rugby World Cup will take place minus some of the world's best players.
Kefu remains upbeat. A test against the All Blacks in Hamilton next year will help them immensely, even though Kefu says they were the All Blacks' second or third choice opponent.
The test will help the Tongans build fitness, which has been a major obstacle before.
However, Kefu knows - as does the world - that Tonga are capable of so much more.
A Tongan World Cup XV that might have been
1. Karl Tu'inukuafe (Blues)
2. Samisoni Taukei'aho (Chiefs)
3. Siate Tokolahi (Highlanders)
4. Sam Lousi (Hurricanes)
5. Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes)
6. Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
7. Colby Fainga'a (Connacht)
8. Amanaki Mafi (NTT Communications Shining Arcs)
9. Augustine Pulu (Blues)
10. David Havili (Crusaders)
11. Toni Pulu (Brumbies)
12. Siale Piutau (Bristol)
13. Malakai Fekitoa (Toulon)
14. Frank Halai (Pau)
15. Charles Piutau (Bristol).
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media