Perhaps no nation produces rugby talent with as much success as Tonga. They have a rich history of producing superb players. However, they struggle in almost every other aspect. Despite their challenges, they are currently enjoying their time in France. The country provides them with better preparation time, improved access to facilities, and necessary training equipment. In contrast, other nations, like their opponent Ireland, have a team of logistics personnel catering to all the players’ needs. Tonga’s chief executive is performing the duties of an entire staff. Their media officer has been seconded from World Rugby, and their preparations are somewhat last-minute.
Nevertheless, recent changes to World Rugby’s eligibility laws have given Tonga the advantage they needed. The new rules allow players who have previously represented another country to switch allegiances after a three-year period. Additionally, the introduction of Moana Pasifika to Super Rugby has been beneficial. As a result, Tonga can now select former All Blacks such as Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau, Vaea Fifita, and George Moala (who is suspended for the Ireland game), along with former Wallaby Adam Coleman, in addition to their usual pool of talent from Top 14, Japanese, and Super Rugby.
Scrum coach Dan Cron, who has been working with Tonga for 14 years, believes they have never had such a strong group of players to choose from. He recalls their surprising victory over France in 2011 and mentions that six members of the management team from that Rugby World Cup are still with the team. However, Cron notes that not much has changed overall. The level of players and athletes has increased due to many Tonga players now competing internationally. There is a significant Tonga community in Japan, and as they reach higher levels, the standards also rise. Making the team has become more challenging, and even talented players have been left out of selection, which may not have been the case in the past.
While some players have previously represented another country, their switch to Tonga is driven by a deep motivation to make an impact. Cron describes the players’ pride and the immense opportunity they have to represent their nation, Tonga. He mentions a recent documentary that followed Malakai and Charles, illustrating the significance of returning to their homeland to play. Cron believes that it’s essential for the players to represent Tonga and hopes that in the future, they won’t have to switch allegiances.
Coming from a rugby background, Cron’s father was the All Blacks’ scrum guru, and Cron himself coaches World Rugby’s elite referees. The Tongan culture has always appealed to him, particularly their emphasis on family and faith. No matter the situation, family comes first for Tonga. This strong sense of community and infectious spirit make it a unique cultural experience. Unlike other teams, Tonga enjoys spending time together and finds comfort in each other’s company. This unity is a significant strength for their team.
As Tonga prepares to face Ireland, Cron acknowledges that it wouldn’t be the craziest outcome in sports history if they were to win. Their goal is to compete and win while making their families proud. The final score will take care of itself.
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