By Nick Mulvenney
TOKYO (Reuters) – Tonga’s improvement over the 30 days from their last warm-up match to their final Rugby World Cup fixture was as good a proof as any that what Pacific island teams need to improve is time together and regular top-class opposition.
The Tongans were thrashed 92-7 by New Zealand in Hamilton on Sept. 7 before they departed for Japan, where they ran France close in their third match and on Sunday finished the tournament with a victory over the United States.
No one is going to pretend it was a perfect performance against the Eagles but the Tongans showed plenty of skill, cohesion and discipline in the 31-19 victory in Osaka.
Of the pride and commitment in the Tongan team there has never been any doubt, but the lack of cash to ensure enough time for preparation and even to pay the players is a problem they wrestle with every four years.
“We don’t have a lot. All we have is ourselves, which brings us together,” said fullback Telusa Veainu, who scored the last Tongan try of the tournament.
“Tonga has a population of 108,000 compared to millions. I’m proud of my team – of the boys. It’s hard to express what the team has been through.
“We’re just against the world really. Some of us don’t even get paid.”
Tonga’s opening 35-3 loss to England in Sapporo was their sixth match of 2019 compared to the 10th – all against tier one opposition – for their wealthy opponents.
Against Argentina in their second match, the Tongans again made a poor start but scored two tries and held the Pumas scoreless for the last 53 minutes of the 28-12 loss.
They got even closer to a win over tier one opposition after another poor start against France, rallying from 17-0 down to give the three-times finalists a mighty scare.
“We need more games which will bring more quality time together,” coach Toutai Kefu had said after that 23-21 loss.
“Everyone can see the improvement over the past three weeks, and the past four weeks. We’ve improved out of sight.”
The under-funding of the Pacific island nations, none of whom got out of the pool stage for third straight tournament in Japan, is an issue that comes to the fore in World Cup years but then tends to drop out of sight again.
Kefu was realistic about anything changing any time soon.
“I hate sitting back and complaining about it, we just get on with it,” he said on Sunday.
“We accept where our position is, we just improve and try to get better. Yeah, we just smile and move on.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)