Moment of truth for world champions: Tonga's blood brothers get in tune for game of their lives

Islanders' progress means England will be tested tomorrow night, says Chris Hewett in Montpellier
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The Independent Online

There were meant to be five of them, but they all turned up: the Tu'ifuas, the Tu'ipulotus, the Tonga'uihas, you name them. Had their families also materialised, there would have been a real crush in the council chamber of the Montpellier Agglomeration. Finau Maka, the most eye-catching No 8 in this World Cup, could have filled it with his siblings, being one of 14.

If ever an international team prided themselves on their togetherness – on their blood-brotherhood, to use the players' own phrase – it is Tonga, and the whole of France loves them for it. They are guaranteed the complete and devoted support of every neutral who begs or steals a ticket for tomorrow's match with England at Parc des Princes in Paris, not to mention those who watch the game from afar. "I think the Welsh and the Scots will be shouting for us – and the Iraqis as well," said the determinedly provocative Epi Taione, an outsized centre who played Premiership rugby with Newcastle and Sale before trying something new with the Sanyo Wild Knights in Japan. "All the angels in heaven will want us to win."

This is the finest Tongan side anyone can recall, and they are about to play the most important game in their rugby history. "Our assistant manager keeps telling us about something that happened in 1973, but he's the only one who can remember it," Taione said with a grin. "To play England, with Jonny Wilkinson in the side, in a World Cup fixture that really means something... this is our greatest moment, and we know we have the firepower to match them. May the strongest team win."

For the first time, Tonga have been in a position to show the best of themselves at a World Cup tournament. They lost all three of their games in the inaugural tournament in 1987, won one out of three in South Africa eight years later and again in the Wales-based competition in 1999, and suffered a four-game whitewash in Australia on their last appearance. In 1991, they did not even qualify. On each occasion, many of their leading players were absent, either because they could not afford to leave their jobs in the islands, or because they could not afford to annoy those sporting employers who had offered them contracts abroad.

Even this year, their coach, Quddus Fielea, was unsure who might accept the World Cup invitation until ridiculously late in the day. While the top-tier nations were completing four years of intensive preparation, Fielea had to wait until July to discover who might be available. When it transpired that they all were, he knew he had half a chance of making something of them. "I come from the islands and I understand the culture," he said yesterday. "Previously, we have foreign coaches – dictators who tried to impose their views and methods on players who would not respond. It needed a local man to earn their trust."

One of the players who placed his trust in Fielea was Otenili Langilangi, otherwise known by his "New Zealand name" of Nili Latu. Born in the Tongan islands, he left for New Zealand at the age of nine and grew up in Auckland. Latu's talent for the union game was obvious from a young age. He quickly made a name for himself as a back-rower with the Bay of Plenty provincial side and ultimately proved sufficiently capable to land himself a Super 12 contract with the Waikato Chiefs. Yet it was not until last year that he made himself available for his country. Why the long wait?

"It was a matter of choosing the right time," he explained. "There have always been good rugby players in Tonga and from Tonga, but bringing the talent together was an organisational and administrative matter that seemed to be beyond the governing body there. Like many other Tongans, I decided to concentrate on what I knew – in my case, building a sporting career for myself in New Zealand, where the level of organisation was very high. But last year, I felt things had changed in the islands and I decided to see for myself if progress was being made. I think now that it was the best decision I ever took in my life. In the past, the Tongan record in international rugby spoke for itself. Now, it is a rugby nation with a future.

"I'm not saying we have everything we need. If you compare us with the major powers, we have very little and still need all the help we can get. But there has been a change for the better. The International Rugby Board has put in some money for high-performance development, and there is a competitive structure in the islands that gives young players a route to follow. Also, we Tongans are using the few resources we do have in an intelligent and progressive way. It's true to say that in this tournament, we have much less than our opponents. But we have ourselves, and we know that if we stay true to the standards we've set, things will continue to improve."

He is 25 but looks older, with good reason. Latu was raised in a hard rugby school in New Zealand's north island; more to the immediate point, he has taken his responsibilities as Tonga's captain extremely seriously, has led the islanders' campaign from the front and paid heavily for his courage. Indeed, few players in this tournament have absorbed even a quarter of the punishment meted out to the Tongan. But he is willing to suffer again tomorrow night, for the prize on offer is great.

"Yes, I have some trouble with my hamstring, but I want to play because I know what victory would mean to my people," he said. "By winning, we would make the nation stronger and change the face of rugby in the islands. There are a lot of professionals in this squad – guys who play in New Zealand and Japan and Europe – and they have brought professional attitudes with them. But there are also people who play for clubs in the islands. For them to be a part of this experience, to be local heroes, is a wonderful thing."

The likelihood must be that England will know too much for Latu and his brethren, but the Tongans cannot lose anyway. As the flanker said: "We seek to win every match, of course, but has there ever been a greater victory for my country than our contribution to this tournament?"