HAVING faced leading Scotland internationalists David Sole and Eric Peters, and got their jerseys to prove it, Tonga’s head coach, Mana ’Otai, is excited at the opportunity of leading his side against the Scots in Aberdeen this afternoon.
’Otai’s first meeting with Scotland came in 1990 when the Scotland squad toured New Zealand fresh from winning the Grand Slam. Intriguingly, then a loosehead prop with Kiwi province Manawatu in the North Island, he moved through his career to No 8, where he would captain Tonga against Scotland in the 1995 Rugby World Cup at Loftus Versfeld.
Now 44 and still a bear of a man, Manakaetau ’Otai reflects warmly on that year, when he won his five Tonga caps, starting with two wins in Japan and continuing with rare matches against top-tier opposition in France and Scotland before scoring a Test try in victory over the Ivory Coast.
From Tonga’s Hilton base in Aberdeen, he recalled: “I played for Manawatu against Scotland in 1990 when David Sole was captain and swapped jerseys with him, and then in 1995 I swapped jerseys with Eric Peters, because I was playing No 8 by then. I got smaller I think.
“My last encounter with Scotland as a player was that World Cup match, which ended up in quite a substantial score [41-5]. We started well [18-5 at half-time] but we didn’t quite finish it off and Scotland were very physical opponents. They took us on up front, mauling, and that was one way of taking out our energy.
“But the game has changed since then. You look at how many phases players play now in a game and it’s very different to when I played and the make-up of the players is different. A typical back of around 95kgs [15 stones] was considered heavy, but now they’re over 100kgs [16 stones], so the conditioning is different.”
The game has changed significantly on the pitch, but the reluctance of the world’s leading rugby nations to push nations such as Tonga on to a level playing field with more Test opportunities has taken most of the past 15 years to shift. New Zealand, for example, made plenty from their famous wing of Tongan parentage, Jonah Lomu, but are still to tour the neighbouring island themselves. That is nothing short of a disgrace.
The IRB have, however, worked hard to drive change and this tour is one example of that. Extra investment from World Cup profits have gone to install a new management team around ’Otai for the next two years, including ex-Wallabies and Springbok backs coach Tim Lane, Bath and Melbourne Rebels forwards coach Mark Bakewell, ex-France defence coach Dave Ellis and experienced High Performance Manager Peter Harding.
Today, however, it comes down to the players, and how high the Tongans can raise the flag with their performance on the pitch. Intriguingly, the biggest danger lurking in the men from the South Seas has always appeared to lie with their physique, and there is little doubt that Scotland will have their work cut out to compete at the tackle area today, with a strong and quick Tongan back row, led by skipper Nili Latu, that could win selection in the squad of many top-ten nations.
’Otai believes that other nations have caught up with the islanders with the development of professional strength and conditioning and so largely negated their physical advantage, but he is also confident that Tonga is improving with the increasing number of players from the small island of 100,000 people being exposed to more pro rugby around the globe.
“A big part of our game is physicality but everyone is at the same level now,” he said. “It used to be our only trait but, in their own way, Scotland are very physical as well. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire and I think they will bring that to this game. This is their last Test [of 2012] and having lost two they will come out wanting to make amends for those.
“That [physicality] is still a part of what we are so it would be foolish for us not to bring that, but we have to be disciplined and use it in a constructive way to achieve what we’re planning to achieve. And we have flair. That is something that we encourage but, again, we need to give the guys the opportunity of playing in such a way that these guys can use their flair, but within the framework that we have.
“That [instilling discipline] is easier with more players being professional now. It is demanded of them as professionals – they are playing for their country here but they are also flag-bearers for their clubs – and it has brought a big improvement. There are more Tongan players around the world playing professional rugby and being exposed to that level of rugby, so how far we can go now is just a question of consistency. Last year we beat France, for example and, on our day, we can compete with anybody, but doing that every game is what we are striving to do.
“The support from the IRB has been very good. Even to be on this tour is a step forward because we can’t fund it ourselves, so to have three Tests, coming from the IRB, at the end of every year I hope, is a major improvement because you can only get better from playing the top-tier rugby nations.
“This is a big deal,” he added, having watched his side run through their final Pittodrie run in north-east sunshine yesterday. “Tonga taking on a Tier One nation and up here in Aberdeen is a big deal for Tongan rugby. We’re confident in what we bring to the game and I guess the question now is whether we can execute it to the best of our ability. That is the key for me, given the pressure and the occasion.
“This is the last of four weeks together for us and, while it would have been nice to have more time, we’ve got to make the most of what we have. The familiarity is getting better with every game. It’s one of these things that you can practice plenty, but it’s only when you are put under pressure in Test matches that you develop the ability to gel and show composure. That’s why this Test match is so important to Tongan rugby and, obviously, winning it would be very good.”