The Pacific Islands have always been known for producing great rugby players, but, when it comes to the Rugby World Cup, they have never tended to be that lucky and have rarely reached the knockout stages. In Tonga’s case, they have been to every edition of the showpiece event since the beginning, bar the 1991 tournament when they failed to qualify, and yet have never made it out of their pool.

That is not to say that they don’t win matches though, with ‘Ikale Tahi picking up at least one victory in every tournament (except in 1987 and 2003), and even won two games in 2007 and 2011.

In 2023, they have been strengthened even further by the additions of star names such as Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and Israel Folau to their ranks (the last of those will miss the tournament with injury), and there is little doubt that they are a dangerous team for others to underestimate.

Head Coach

Since 2016, Tonga have been coached by Toutai Kefu, and the longevity of his reign has allowed ‘Ikale Tahi to build year-on-year and to develop their identity as they try to put themselves in a position to challenge for a place in the knockout rounds.

What has helped Kefu to stay in the job for so long is that he never expects the unexpected from his players, and always gives them achievable goals rather than demanding what he knows will never be accomplished.

Against New Zealand in 2021, Tonga were being demolished and Kefu simply said afterwards that he was proud of their desire to keep going and that he felt their embarrassment. At the same time, he said that his biggest dream was to lead his nation to the World Cup quarter-finals, but that, if they didn’t do it this time, it wasn’t the end of the world and they would simply try again next time. Therefore, he knows where they are in their development and whether they can realistically compete with their opponents or whether they simply need to learn from them.

That sense of realism has allowed his players to grow on their own terms without feeling like they are running before they can walk, and it is why Tonga are always a team worth keeping an eye on as fans look to assess where they are in that process.

Attacking play

In attack, ‘Ikale Tahi are a very physical side who always want to play quick rugby, with well-executed carries and strength around the pitch key to ensuring that their opponents never have time to set up against them. That style of play will suit the likes of Piutau and Fekitoa, who thrive in teams that don’t slow the play down and always want to get forward and make things happen.

However, for all of their promising build-up play, Tonga do have a tendency to leave points out on the field, with mistakes a regularity in their games, and it was very evident in their qualifying win against Hong Kong that they could have made life more comfortable for themselves had they taken their chances. In that game, it didn’t matter as they were the better side overall, but at the World Cup, when they will be facing some of the best teams on the planet, they will need to be clinical when they do have opportunities to get points on the board.

Defensive play

In defence, Tonga’s physicality is once again very clear to see, with them never wanting to give their opponents too much space to move into and always looking to disrupt their rhythm wherever possible.

However, they are susceptible to teams who play a slightly quicker style against them, as that is when they leave gaps open themselves and make it easy for opposing sides to break them down. Hong Kong showed that when they scored a well-worked try after putting together several phases of intricate passing, whilst England broke them down on numerous occasions by making the pitch as big as possible back in 2021, when they faced ‘Ikale Tahi during the Autumn Nations Cup.

With strong defensive players such as Piutau in their ranks, this might improve in France, but it is still something that they need to look at and which could hurt their hopes of finally making a quarter-final.

Key players

Whilst the aforementioned new arrivals who have been included will all bring something new to the table, the player who is front and centre of everything that Tonga do well is scrum-half and captain Sonatane Takulua. During his time at Newcastle Falcons between 2015 and 2020, he stood out as a pacey, energetic nine who constantly wanted to get on the front foot and make things happen, and those key qualities of his game are evident whenever he is wearing a Tonga shirt too.

Time after time, he is the one who makes the decisions around what ‘Ikale Tahi are going to do with the ball, and his ability to snipe around the breakdown and to exploit gaps in the opposing defensive line and use them to his advantage will make him a dangerous player to face and someone who opponents need to contain at all costs.

Tournament prediction

As mentioned, Tonga’s dream is to make a quarter-final stage, and they came very close in 2011 when they went into the final round of pool games with their fate still in their hands. On that occasion, they managed to beat France and add to their win against Japan and losing bonus point against Canada, but fell just short of progression due to other results going against them.

However, going that close gave them a desire to finally break through the barrier and call themselves quarter-finalists, and it is clear when watching them and when listening to or reading Kefu’s comments that that is what motivates them to get better every time they step out onto the pitch.

Achieving that feat in 2023 does unfortunately look beyond them, with their pool containing South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and Romania, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a possibility of them picking up yet more wins and showing again why they deserve to be at the World Cup every four years. If they can beat Romania and cause the other three sides a few headaches, then that would be a successful showing for them.