Tonga face a daunting task if they’re to seal qualification for the Men’s Olympic Sevens competition in Suva this weekend.
Ten countries, including World Series regulars Samoa and Australia, are competing this week for the chance to confirm their spot in Tokyo next year, with the two pool winners to square off on Saturday in the Oceania Qualifying Final.
Tonga open their qualifying campaign against American Samoa on Thursday and will also take on Vanuatu, Nauru and Australia in pool play.
Head coach Tevita Tuʻifua said there was a lot at stake: “It is a very important tournament for us,” he said. “Not only for our programme but for the future of Tongan sevens.”
The kingdom finished fifth at last year’s Oceania Sevens Championship, behind Fiji, New Zealand, Samoa and Australia, and also took part in the World Series events in Hamilton and Sydney.
“Last year I think was a big learning curve,” Tuʻifua said. “It was totally a new group that we put together in the squad so most of them, the majority of them, this is the second year of being involved in the Tonga Sevens so I’m expecting performance wise to be more improvements compared to last year.”
Tuʻifua said the Tongan squad had been training together in Auckland for the past 12 weeks and had received strong support from a number of clubs, who had allowed them to compete in a handful of local competitions to ensure they arrived in Fiji match-ready.
“We have two pools that we are fighting for one spot. We need to win our pool and then we play the winner of the other pool, so it is the same format as the Pacific Games (where Tonga finished third despite not losing a game),” he said.
“I believe that every team in our pool is all a threat to us. We are treating them as the champions Australia.
“It’s really hard to tell and have an idea in terms of Vanuatu they have been preparing in Fiji for the past few weeks I believe and even American Samoa, so we’re just expecting it to be a really really tough tournament for us so we are treating pretty much all the teams in our pool all the same.”
Australia won the Oceania men’s Olympic qualifying tournament four years ago, and have bolstered their squad with the addition of seven-test Wallabies winning Jack Maddocks.
Aussie 7s coach Tim Walsh told AAP his side, who finished seventh on last season’s World Sevens Series, were wary of the threat posed by the Tongan side.
“Tonga are a banana peel, you just have to look at the rugby league Test (defeat of the Kangaroos on Saturday) to see that,” he said.
“There’s always upsets, that’s what sport’s all about but we’ve been diligent and done all we can to be successful.”
New Zealand and Fiji have already sealed Olympic berths after a top four finish, alongside the USA and South Africa, in the last World Series campaign.
The winner of Saturday’s Olympic qualifying final will join them in Tokyo next year while the runner-up and winner of the bronze playoff will advance to a final repechage tournament next year for the last remaining berth.
Meanwhile, Tonga’s hopes of qualifying a host of ex All Blacks and Wallabies internationals through the Olympic Sevens loophole have been dashed.
‘Ikale Tahi coach Toutai Kefu said during the World Cup in Japan that former All Blacks Charles Piutau and George Moala, as well as ex Wallabies forward Lopeti Timani, were among a group of high profile players set to play for Tonga at this weekend’s Oceania Sevens Championship in Fiji, which doubles as a qualifying tournament for Tokyo 2020.
Provided the players hold a Tongan passport and have not played a test match in the last three years they could have switched allegience to Tonga’s 15-a-side team by playing in 50 percent of the Kingdom’s matches in Suva.
But Tevita Tuʻifua said there would be no high profile additions in his squad this weekend.
“I have been trying my best to be aligned with the ‘Ikale Tahi, which I believe will be good for the (Sevens) programme and for Tonga rugby as well,” he said.
“But at this stage nothing been comfirmed – we’re just focusing on the 12 that we currently have.”
Tana Fotofil will captain Tonga’s 12-man squad in Suva, which includes four locally-based players and three who played in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup domestic competition.