Tonga step up

Even among the big men of Tongan rugby, Finau Maka stands out. It’s not just that he’s 1,9m tall or weighs in at a touch less than 114kg — there are bigger men in the breakfast room at the team’s hotel just outside Montpellier. Perhaps it’s the elaborate coiffure; that lollipop of hair that marks him out in the mayhem of a rugby field. More likely it’s the laugh.

The Tongans are collectively confident after their achievements in the World Cup so far and Maka, the most laid back of a laid-back nation, is beside himself.

The wins over the United States and Samoa guaranteed Tonga a place in the 2011 tournament in New Zealand, and running South Africa so close confirmed the emergence of a new rugby power. Now Maka believes the time is ”right” to take on England and perhaps, just perhaps, pull off the biggest shock of France 2007 so far.

The thought of the world champions going out to a side who could not beat Japan, let alone Samoa, three months ago makes him giggle in anticipation of Friday night’s game in Paris. ”We have nothing to lose. The pressure is on England.”

Maka also feels he has something to prove. At the age of 30 this will be only his third cap.

Born on an impoverished island, he first trailed his coat in New Zealand. ”I could maybe have played for Tonga when I was 19,” he said, but instead he and his big brother, Isitolo — more than 20 stone and two years older — wanted to become All Blacks.

”He played four or five times. England in 1998, when he scored, was his first Test,” said Finau. ”Me and him played for the New Zealand Academy against England on that same tour. They took Isitolo from that academy side into the Test team the following week.”

From New Zealand the brothers moved to France, signing for Toulouse. Isitolo has since moved to Japan — although he fancies another go at knocking lumps off players in Europe. But five years and two Heineken Cups on, Finau had hoped France might fancy his physical back-row skills for this World Cup. ”Being in France I was available for France, but they didn’t like me.”

After toying with a move to England, Maka says he has recently signed a two-year extension with Toulouse — ”the weather and the supporters are just too good” — but thought he was going to sit out the World Cup until Tonga’s new head coach, Quddus Fielea, phoned.

After those June defeats to Japan and Samoa in the Pacific Cup, the Australian coach, Adam Leach, had resigned in frustration over the political infighting in Tongan rugby that makes Twickenham vs The Clubs seem like a bed of roses. The administrators — and there are two sets, who have separate responsibilities, never seeing eye to eye on anything — took a chance on Fielea, a local talent, rather than shop around in the international market.

Fielea has no professional experience but obviously has a persuasive tongue and has managed to pull together most of the Tongans who play in Europe. ”For the World Cup, I didn’t think I’d be here but I had a point to prove,” said Maka. ”I said yes when Quddus phoned and when I saw the squad I knew it was the best one ever to have left Tonga.”

Only four of the side that lost to Samoa 50-3 in June were selected and the squad has a core who have the discipline that comes from playing in Europe and England. Fielea’s squad, which includes Epeli Taione, once of Sale and Newcastle, Taufa’ao Filise of Cardiff Blues, Aisea Havili and Aleki Lutui of Worcester and Soane Tonga’uiha of Northampton, do not play like the Tonga that won only two of their 13 World Cup outings before 2007.

”We’re doing well because there’s a lot of experience in the team and we don’t give away penalties,” said Maka. ”If you want to play good rugby and perform, you have to have discipline.

”I said as soon as I came into the team that we were big men, we can offload, give passes during contact like Toulouse. But like Toulouse we must have discipline.”

The formula has worked wonderfully. Tonga are the surprise package of the World Cup, have eyes on a quarterfinal place and Maka is tickled pink.

”Back home all the students on their way to school and people on their way to work are wearing red. It’s fantastic. Samoa was the game for us. Every game between us is important and to beat them in the World Cup after all those years that Tonga have lost to Samoa …

”In Lens [against South Africa] we went there to win, of course. You have to believe and be confident, otherwise you just give up. We went in there fully focused on winning. We were confident we could win. Afterwards I saw the game [on television] and the faces of their coaches looked as though they were in shock.”

Maka says that when his playing career is over he will probably return to Tonga — ”I’m so far from my home and my family” — but he will feel at home at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Friday.

”With each of those games we lifted ourselves. Each time we played better and gained confidence to perform on the big stage and that’s really important. Yes, it’s a good time to play England. It can’t get any bigger. It can’t get any better. And with 60-million French behind us, we can’t go wrong.” — Â

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