THE TONGANS trained in the Aberdeen Sports Village yesterday out of the winter chill, but declared themselves ready for whatever the elements and Scotland have to throw at them.
Tonga made headlines just over a year ago when they claimed the scalp of France early in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Since then, the Tongan rugby union has been forced into an overhaul of a controversial domestic structure and the IRB have sent in a management team that boasts more Test experience than most national set-ups.
Under head coach Mana Otai, a Tongan cap, are backs coach Tim Lane, the former Clermont Auvergne and Australia World Cup-winning backs coach, defence chief Dave Ellis, the former rugby league player who was France’s defence coach for 11 years up to last year’s World Cup Final, and Mark Bakewell, a Kiwi bred in Australia who has coached the Bath forwards and Melbourne Rebels, among others.
The reason is the IRB’s drive to improve the quality of Tier 2 nations. The new coaching team are in their first tour with Tonga, but have been pleased with how their squad has started to come together.
They lost 28-23 to Italy in Brescia, but were frustrated by an Italy try clearly dropped a yard from the line.
The Tongans bounced back by beating USA at Colwyn Bay last week 22-13 and are targeting Scotland as the big scalp in Aberdeen in their final tour match.
Overseeing the Tongan revival is high-performance manager Peter Harding, a former Wallabies strength and conditioning chief and London Irish and Clermont coach.
He told The Scotsman: “These are early days for the new management, but we have been very pleased with the attitude and commitment of the Tongan boys.
“Tonga is a country of just 100,000 people but a lot of rugby talent. The problem is they have to leave Tonga to play the game at a high level, so we have players from eight different countries here on tour. But the boys are loving it in Aberdeen and want to prove that they deserve the IRB backing, which means winning Test matches.
“We have been very impressed by Scotland – if they had started against South Africa as they finished, they’d probably have beaten them. But we have the same goal as Scotland this weekend: We want to not just be competitive, or come close, but win.”