The beauty of the World Cup is not confined to events on the pitch. The tournament is still three weeks away, but there might not be a more incongruously glorious scene than the Tongan national rugby team, replete in national dress, engaging in a sing-off against the Cranleigh choral society.
Tongans love a sing-song. By all accounts, they brought the house down and, for the past couple of weeks, they have been leaving their Pacific stamp on this picturesque corner of the Surrey countryside training with Cranleigh School first XV and worshipping at the local baptist church. Across the country, towns and villages will also play host to Georgians, Romanians and Canadians and will hopefully witness the same cultural exchanges.
TeCranleigh was chosen not just because of the school’s outstanding facilities but because of the absence of any fast-food outlets within a five-mile radius. Despite possessing almost the perfect genetics to produce rugby players, Pacific Islanders also have a propensity to over indulge. Nine of the top 10 most obese countries in the world are islands in the Pacific. In Tonga, 57.6 per cent of the population are classified as obese, which becomes less shocking when you hear what the local delicacy is. “The big thing is the piglets,” Siale Piutau, the centre says with a big smile on his face. “We tend to cook them on the spit over the fire. You can just imagine them running around in Tonga, all they eat is coconuts. My guess is that they are 99 per cent fat and one per cent meat. There’s not a lot of protein in there so you can understand why clubs get a bit worried when we go back to the islands.”
Peter Harding, the high performance manager, sighs. “They are a nightmare for nutritionists, but that is part of the challenge,” he said. “You have to understand that I work for the Tongan rugby team rather than an Anglo-Saxon sports science department. We have to have the right amount of Tongan influence. It has to be a Tongan rugby coach.”
Thus far, everybody has been kept on the straight and narrow. Preparations are going well and confidence is high, even if they have to make do without three players who were pressured into missing the tournament by their clubs.
“We have three potential problems this year but, when push comes to shove, it comes down to the individual making a very difficult decision about whether they protect their contract or play for Tonga,” Harding said. “It is not for us to enforce.”
Rather than bemoan those and other handicaps the Island teams have to overcome, there is no self-pity, only confidence at what they can achieve. At the last World Cup, they beat France 19-14 and only just missed out on qualifying for the quarter-finals. Preparations this time have been infinitely better according to Piutau.
Their fate is likely to be decided by their meeting against Argentina in Pool C, but their sights are trained higher. “Our aim is not just to get to the quarter-finals but to win the cup,” Piutau said. “Everything is centred through our belief.”
Belief is the defining feature of this Tongan team. Before every training session, the group engage in a prayer, a bible reading and a couple of hymns. “We believe we can upset the tier one nations and that comes down to how we prepare ourselves daily, how we train, our discipline,” Sione Kalamafoni, the Gloucester No 8, said. “We are a nation that believes in ourselves. We are Christian and we believe in ourselves. We believe in God, we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe in working hard and letting God do the rest.”
- The Telegraph