Tonga centre Malakai Fekitoa agrees with head coach Toutai Kefu that this is the “best ever” team they have had at a Rugby World Cup, but says they must show that against Scotland on Sunday.
The 31-year-old and three other former New Zealand stars were helpless as Ireland made Tonga pay for their lack of discipline and ran out 59-16 winners last Saturday.
Fekitoa and his fellow former All Blacks told their teammates they must learn quickly from the thrashing and move on as “this competition does not stop for anyone”.
He speaks from experience having been part of the 2015 All Blacks squad which lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for the third time.
Fekitoa and the other All Blacks, as well as former Australia lock Adam Coleman, have been able to “return home”, as Fekitoa put it, due to World Rugby changing their eligibility rules.
This led Tonga-born Kefu – who was part of the Australia side that won the 1999 World Cup – to label the team the finest sent to the sport’s quadrennial showpiece by the Pacific island.
“As a team it is probably the best ever selected for Tonga,” agreed Fekitoa on Tuesday.
“However, there is always massive pressure playing for your country as you are representing a lot of people.”
Fekitoa admitted that attaching such a label to a team was a double-edged sword.
On one side, Ireland showed them respect in selecting “their No 1 side”, while on the other he and his teammates failed to really display their talent on the pitch.
“We defended 95 per cent of the time and did not really get to showcase our talent,” he said.
“I hope we can fix it quickly and perform against Scotland.”
Fekitoa, capped 24 times by the All Blacks, said he hoped to be more involved than he was against the Irish.
The game largely passed him by as the 16 penalties Tonga conceded prevented them from having much possession.
“We have got to come back and learn and retain the ball longer at least than last weekend,” he said.
Fekitoa says the fact the Scots play a more free-flowing game than the Irish should offer the Tongans scoring opportunities.
However, he said by the same token Tonga must not allow the Scots too much possession.
“They have speed across the park and Finn Russell with a lot of magic in his hands can play from anywhere,” said Fekitoa.
“They pose a threat equal to Ireland.”
Fekitoa expressed fears over the physically imposing Scots.
However, Tonga’s defence coach Dale MacLeod thinks they can be put in their place.
“Scotland will fear the contact and physical brutality the boys can bring,” he said.
MacLeod saw a lot he liked in the display against Ireland but said any side that was pinned inside its 22 on 16 occasions as Tonga were “would have cracked.”
“I have no doubt they are better for the experience and they will show what they can do this week,”said MacLeod.
“1It may have been 59-16 but there was a lot of good stuff in there just the penalties compounded the pressure.”
MacLeod said his and the rest of the coaching staff’s job is to instil in the players not to panic if things go against them initially.
“The boys do believe in themselves,” he said.
“I think if we go back to Ireland we were too over-eager.
“We do not want to fizz the boys up too much, but keep them calm and collected.
“If we motivate them correctly we can beat anyone”
MacLeod said however the Scotland game may come too early given the lack of top opposition Tonga faced prior to the tournament.
Before the Ireland match the last tier-one team they played was England in 2021 – and after Scotland they face World Cup holders South Africa.
“We will be better this week and then better the week after,” he said.
“We will be hitting our straps by the last match (against Romania), which is probably not quite right,” he said.