Tonga relies on Telusa Veainu


Telusa Veainu was far away when he watched Tonga’s Rugby World Cup upset win over France in 2011, even though he was in New Zealand.

Far away from international rugby, far from becoming one of the stars of the team.

“I was in New Zealand, at my cousin’s house. The whole family was glued to it and it inspired a lot of people,” Veainu said. “I didn’t think I was good enough at the time to become an international, and even in 2015 I didn’t really have anything contract-wise before Tonga threw me a lifeline.”

Tonga won that match 19-14 in one of the competition’s biggest upsets. The setback did the French a lot of good, though. From the humiliation of being torn apart by their unhappy media they went on to reach the final and only just lost, 8-7 to the All Blacks in a nerve-shredder at Eden Park.

Having cheered the Tongans on television on that day eight years ago, Veainu can have a crack at the French for real in Sunday’s Pool C encounter and he’ll be buoyed by the two tries he scored in the 28-12 loss to Argentina.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge. Like Argentina. I think (France) will be trying to move the ball around,” said Veainu, who has finally shaken off a persistent foot injury sustained playing for Leicester Tigers.

Tonga lost its tournament opener to England 35-3, but it wasn’t entirely lopsided and the manner in which it rallied back from 28-0 down against Argentina was encouraging. Keen to keep that momentum going, head coach Toutai Kefu has made only two lineup changes for the match at Kumamoto Stadium.

Tight-head prop Ma’afu Fia replaces Ben Tameifuna and Cooper Vuna, who played two test matches for Australia in 2012, comes in for Viliami Lolohea on the right wing.

Add that to the fact France had only a four-day turnaround after beating the United States and there is cautious optimism in Tonga’s camp.

“It’s a tough one for them and I’m glad we didn’t have to work out how best to deal with that. But they are Tier 1, we will find out if they can handle it,” assistant Tonga coach Pita Alatini said.

France can maintain its unblemished record in always reaching the Rugby World Cup knockout round with a win.