Rugby World Cup
Tonga's big chance for Cup quarter-final
Sam Bruce
January 8, 2015
Hooker Aleki Lutui is one Tonga player to keep an eye on © Getty Images

Buoyed by a successful November campaign in which Jake White acted as a coaching consultant, Tonga have set their sights on a maiden quarter-final appearance at this year's Rugby World Cup.

The Pacific Islanders, who pulled off one of the great upsets in World Cup history with a 19-14 triumph over eventual runners-up France in 2011, find themselves in Pool C alongside defending champions New Zealand as well as Argentina, Georgia and Namibia. And while they won't be taking Georgia and Namibia lightly, it's their third pool match, against the Pumas, that could well decide who advances alongside the All Blacks.

"There is a quarter-final berth on offer but the first thing is we've got to get past Georgia, and all these tier-two nations are becoming very, very good teams now," Tonga's High Performance Manager Peter Harding told ESPN. "They've got good structures, good sponsorships, etc; so we can't take our eyes off Georgia. All their players play professional rugby in France or England or Italy, so we've got to make sure we're on top of them first.

"Namibia are obviously a different proposition but then, yes, Argentina is the big game. Once we get through those first two we have to win that one to get through to the quarter-finals as our other game is against New Zealand, and not many people beat them these days do they."

Tonga will likely enter the clash with Argentina as underdogs, particularly with the Pumas having had the benefit of three tough Rugby Championship encounters in the lead-up as well as their opening pool fixture against the All Blacks. But the ace up the Islanders sleeve could be White, whom they hope to retain in a consultancy role despite his recent move to Top 14 club Montpellier.

Two wins from three matches - including a 23-9 defeat of pool rivals Georgia - was a solid return from Tonga's November tour, but it was White's input that proved to be the real success.

Viliami Ma'afu will be a handful at No.8 come World Cup time © Getty Images

"We've had good coaches all the way through over the last few years, but we had a guy who couldn't come this year so we grabbed Jake to go away," Harding said. "The thing that Jake brought, he's obviously got the respect of everyone in rugby because of what he's done and where he's come from. And he knows what he's doing; so there was no transition period, it was immediate.

"He's an excellent coach and a fantastic communicator, and he's just fitted in perfectly. He's just such an easy person to get on with and with his extensive knowledge and ability to coach and teach, it was a great fit from the players right through to the coaching and medical staff."

With almost all of their players now based in Europe, Tonga will enter the tournament arguably more professional than in any of their previous campaigns. Sona Taumalolo is among those players in Europe, playing for Perpignan; his taunting of the French front-row was one of the lasting images from New Zealand four years ago, and Harding backed Tonga's front-rowers to again deliver on the game's biggest stage.

"We've got a couple of outstanding players," he said. "We recalled a hooker - who was with us for 2011 - this last November, and he went very well; that's Aleki Lutui. We've got a No.8, Viliami Ma'afu, who played with the Auckland Blues and now plays in France; he's an outstanding player. And we've probably got six to eight world-class props we can choose from at the moment as you can imagine.

"And we've got some backs and wingers like Fetu'u Vainikolo, who's at Exeter, and David Halaifonua, who's now at Gloucester; these guys are outstanding athletes and just natural footy players because they grow up playing it. So I'd look at our outside backs, our No.8 Ma'afu, and any of the props who end up playing for us are going to be world-class; so they're the players I'd be looking out for."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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