“We’re in a tough pool, but we’ll throw all our eggs in one basket and aim up against Ireland. We can’t play footy with them; they’ll beat us every day of the week. So, we need to come up with a bit of a plan and I think we’ve got one; it’s going to be good.”
Andy Farrell’s charges will examine the substance of Tongan head coach Toutai Kefu’s words in a few weeks when the teams meet in the Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes. Until then the former Australian Rugby World Cup winner (1999) is allowed to be a little bullish, especially when it comes to beating Ireland, a feat he managed on four of five occasions as a player.
Tongan-born, he grew up in Brisbane playing a variety of sports, but it was his Queensland underage representative level basketball skills, coupled with athleticism and powerful physique that enabled him to be one of the great Aussie number eights, directly following another Tongan-born colossus, Willie Ofahengaue in the green and gold jersey.
Kefu’s playing career spanned 60 Tests (52 starts) for the Wallabies, initially under World Cup winning coach Rod Macqueen, then John Connolly and finally Eddie Jones and culminated with a badly broken shoulder blade following a tackle from the late former All Blacks’ legend, Jerry Collins.
His connection with Ireland teams began in June 1999 when the Aussies beat the visitors 46-10 in Brisbane, a match that featured the respective debuts of Brian O’Driscoll, Matt Mostyn and the late Tom Tierney. The following week was an altogether closer affair, Ireland outscoring their hosts three tries (Justin Bishop, Peter Clohessy, Kevin Maggs) to two but going down 32-26.
Kefu was on a winning team at Lansdowne Road later that year (23-3) and again at the Subiaco Oval in Perth in 2003 (45-16); the only time he had been on the losing side was in Dublin (2002) when Ireland outhalf Ronan O’Gara kicked six penalties in an 18-9 victory.
Growing up in Brisbane had toughened him as a person. He explained in an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald. “We were one of the first Tongans there. Back then, rugby’s a middle-class, upper-class sport, only in private schools.
“It was new to people to have some Polynesians running around. What we encountered back then you don’t encounter now. For us back then, there were only a few of us. There were some hardships. You grew a thick skin and got on with it. It does affect you, but you move on.
“They don’t know, they don’t understand us. For us, it was a great opportunity for us to be here, so we sucked it up, thick skin, and moved forward.”
He required all of that resilience on August 16th, 2021, when his wife Rachel interrupted four teenagers between 13 and 15 breaking into the Kefu home in the early hours of the morning in Brisbane.
Attacked with an axe, a cane knife and machetes, Rachel’s arm was cut just to the bone and she subsequently suffered nerve damage. Her husband had his abdomen sliced open, suffered a cut to his liver, sustained broken ribs and was in surgery for seven hours as doctors battled to save his life.
Their son Joshua required 40 stitches in his back to reattach a large flap of skin, while one of his daughters, Madi was also cut on the hand, two others hid from the attackers, one in a bush outside, one upstairs: four of the family ended up in surgery. Kefu showed remarkable forbearance and forgiveness in the aftermath.
He said: “They’re kids. They were both 15, there was a 13-year-old in the car. I’ve got a 15-year-old and I’ve got a 13-year-old at home. I thought, ‘Well look at me and Josh, we could overrun these guys’. We didn’t think we’d get that cut up. But no one died, we’re still alive. Those kids … They’ve been brought up differently … I feel sorry for them. They’re not going to have the same life my kids are going to have. We should pray for them.”
Kefu’s coaching career began with Queensland Country, he worked as an assistant coach with Tonga at the 2011 World Cup and then in 2016 took over the head coach’s role, leading the country of his birth to the 2019 and 2023 global finals.
While he will be without the controversial former Wallaby Israel Folau and their leading try scorer at World Cups, the ex-Leicester Tigers and Stade Francais wing Telusa Veainu, both injured, Kefu can call upon a host of former All Blacks, the brilliant Charles Piutau, once of Ulster, Vaea Fifita, former Munster centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrumhalf Augustine Pulu and when he finishes his suspension, George Moala.
Kefu is a man with a plan, the essence of which will be revealed when they take to the field in their opening game of the tournament in Nantes in a couple of weeks.
SOURCE: IRISH TIMES/PACNEWS