It is difficult to get a firm measure of where the Tongan rugby team are ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but if I had to describe them in a single word based on their summer test results – at the risk of this ending up on a dressing room wall – I would probably go with “Adequate”.
They are a fairly well-rounded team, with a decent attack, passable defence, and average set piece.
No aspect of their game stands out as an overwhelming strength, but they don’t really have many glaring weaknesses either. Ultimately, they are a team that perhaps lacks a firm identity.
On one level this shouldn’t be a huge surprise. More than any other test team, Tonga have taken advantage of the recent change in eligibility laws, and while this does vastly increase the talent pool, it has also resulted in them recruiting a swathe of players from various nations, scattered through clubs across the world, each with very different experiences and styles of play.
Tonga, as a rugby nation, have historically been built around a world-class scrum and the desire to murder you in defence. A team that hit you hard enough in the tackle that you drop the ball, then drive you back in the resulting scrum.
But since 2019 they have looked a shadow of themselves. Thanks in large part to covid – which affected them more than any other team in the World Cup – they have had as near as zero matches with a full squad available since the last World Cup. Infamously for their 2021 fixture against the All Blacks they were forced to pick amateur players from local clubs in New Zealand because their European based professionals were unable to travel in sufficient time to quarantine themselves before the match.
But even with a full squad for this year’s Pacific Nations Cup they were caught out in the scrum. A slight nudge against Japan wasn’t enough to provide a base of penalties, and more worryingly for them, Fiji and Samoa came out on top in this battleground.
Their maul is similarly hit or miss. While it did for the most part function well enough (excluding the beginning of their Fiji fixture), the PNC teams aren’t exactly known for their maul dominance. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the big dogs of Pool B try to expose them here. It is a similar story when employing the maul in attack. A handful of decent drives over the PNC resulted in a couple of tries, but for the most part, they were repelled without issue.
They have a bit of an issue at the line out, where in their match against Samoa it utterly imploded. Balls were overthrown, intercepted, or disrupted with ease throughout the 80 minutes.
In both attack and defence, they can be described similarly: effective when narrow but disorganised out wide.
Defensively they are a very rigid team, pressuring hard but narrow. But if you can get outside their heavy press then they look lost, falling off tackles like they are all Blair Kinghorn.
Time after time in the PNC their opposition found space out on the wings, and Fiji especially had great success with their offloading game in the wide channels. Even bringing in Toulouse’s vastly underrated Pita Akhi at 12 against Japan didn’t solve the problem, though it was harder for teams to go around them when he was playing. A large majority of the tries they conceded in the PNC came from their disorganisation out wide.
Tonga’s attack looks most threatening when they can play off quick ball, their main attacking tactic: firing one out runners off 9. When they get forwards running fast onto the ball and offloading after contact they can easily overwhelm a defence. It is somewhat similar to the French “Submerger” tactic of endless waves of pick-and-go drives from forwards willing and able to offload, but the Tongan variation is played away from the heavy traffic of the breakdown.
This does come with a drawback: their ball carriers are further from support, and as a result the main way a Tongan attack ended over the summer was in turnover. Something that most Pool B teams are more than able to capitalise on.
Even if their opposition are unable to steal possession, simply slowing Tonga’s ruck speed down is usually enough to stop the attack. However, this is easier said than done thanks to a combination of excellent ball presentation and tireless speed by the scrumhalf that outpaces most defenders. During their best attacks this summer the ball has left the breakdown before the defence could even attempt to contest the ruck.
Their attack is run by their exceptional captain and scrumhalf Sonatane Takulua, who commands the breakdown like Grieg Laidlaw on fast forward. His speed to the breakdown rivals any 9 in the world, and the accuracy and speed of his passes is just as good. But it is his decision making that is so key to the Tongan attack, as they play off 9 more than basically any international team since Eddie Jones’s Japan.
Takulua was playing for Toulon in 2021, and he left the club a week before the international window in order to comply with the two-week quarantine that New Zealand required at the time. Because of this Toulon released him from his contract. Since than he has been stuck playing in the ProD2, France’s second division.
On paper their outside backs are stacked with world-class talent. Pita Akhi and Malakai Fekitoa is a phenomenal centre pairing, having won the Top14 and URC respectively last season. Salesi “Charles” Piutau has been one of the best attacking fullbacks in the world for a decade. And even without noted bigot Folau they can still call upon the likes of Solomone Kata of Leicester and Moana Pacifica’s Fine Inisi.
And yet, despite all this talent, when the ball has gone wide to them, they have lacked cohesion. There is a real weak link at 10 in this Tongan team. They lack a player who can boss the backline into shape and direct the flow of attack. All their decision-making appears to go through 9, and while that does allow for a fast and cohesive attack close to the breakdown, when they try to play wide they are left confused, and often caught far behind the gain line without support, or passing in a panic to nobody.
Some of these issues are mitigated by selecting William Havili at stand-off, who is their best 10 at marshalling an attack. Despite this, I suspect they may favour Otumaka Mausia for his long-range goal kicking. A player able to slot a penalty from his own half is hard to pass up. As well as a cannon off the tee, he offers a dangerous running threat, but poor game management and terrible kicks from hand that would hinder the team.
Tonga would need to improve greatly to have any chance of stealing a scalp this year. Even catching someone on a bad day is probably not enough for them to steal a win. Given the style of play and the weakness they have shown this summer it wouldn’t surprise me if their defence gave Ireland a bit of a challenge, but I can’t see them denying the world number ones a bonus point win.
In a way, it’s a shame for Tonga that the World Cup is this year. I can’t help but think that another twelve months together would allow them the chance to find a style of play that suits them, and perfect it. As it is though, they are a group of talented individuals held together more by the skill of the players than any overarching gameplan. The team is more than able on paper to spring an upset, but when it is time to take it to the pitch their organisation is usually found lacking.