Tongan Kefu fills huge hole for Wallabies

World champions look to their powerful No 8 (left) who was born to play rugbyunion at the higest level as they prepare for collision with England
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The Independent Online

Rodger Siaosi Toutai Kefu was still a month or two short of his second birthday when his family bade an emotional farewell to the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa and flew due west to begin a new life in Queensland, so he was not wholly aware of the reasoning behind his parents' decision.

Rodger Siaosi Toutai Kefu was still a month or two short of his second birthday when his family bade an emotional farewell to the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa and flew due west to begin a new life in Queensland, so he was not wholly aware of the reasoning behind his parents' decision.

He has it figured now, though. "It was all to do with rugby," the Wallaby No 8 said this week as the world champions arrived in London for Saturday's Cook Cup Test with England. "Basically, we left the islands for Australia so my dad could play club rugby in Brisbane. This game means a lot of things to a lot of people, but it means everything to us."

Kefu Snr squeezed every last drop of enjoyment from his career with the Souths club - "He went the way of all rugby flesh, starting as a back and ending up in the front row," smiled his illustrious heir -- and his sons are ploughing the same furrow. At the last count, six of them were playing union in and around Brisbane, and it is generally assumed that at least one of them will follow Toutai into the ranks of the green and gold. "By the time we get to the 2003 World Cup, there might be two Kefus in the side," said son No 1, proudly.

It is an alarming prospect, for one Kefu is quite enough to be going on with, thank you very much. Logic dictates that the Australian loose forward combination should be struggling for form and continuity at the moment; David Wilson, the cement between the back-row bricks for so many years, retired from international rugby in the summer, leaving Kefu and Matt Cockbain to make do and mend while George Smith, the dreadlocked demon from the ACT Brumbies, adjusted to life in the fast lane. Thanks largely to Kefu's formidable presence in what Lawrence Dallaglio likes to call the "collision region", the transition has been entirely seamless.

Not that Kefu, almost unnaturally modest for an Aussie high-achiever, claims one iota of credit for the fact that an under-strength Wallaby party have just won back-to-back Tests in Paris and Edinburgh. "David was definitely the linchpin of the unit we formed from 1997 onwards, so his retirement was a pretty big thing for those of us left behind," he acknowledged. "But I'm really not sure that experience counts for as much as people seem to think. Look at George. He's young, his enthusiasm is incredible and he's very, very confident. In the professional game, where squads are together for longer periods of time than ever before, these new guys get a sniff of the action and, before you know it, they're running the show. It's good for someone like me to get a kick up the behind. It stops me getting stale."

There was nothing remotely stale about Kefu during last year's World Cup. He was, by some considerable distance, the pick of the No 8s in the competition - no mean feat for a player contesting the same piece of ground as Dallaglio, Bobby Skinstad, Pat Lam and Scott Quinnell - and he also won the fight of the tournament, a pugilistic spectacular started by Trevor Brennan, the stir-crazy Irish flanker, but comprehensively finished by the islander's big right hand. "Actually, I had a bit of help from my teammates," he admitted. "And there was a moment in the dressing-room right after the game when I thought: 'Oh no, what have I done?' I still think I was unfairly treated by the disciplinary panel [he was banned for a fortnight and missed the quarter-final victory over Wales] but there again, I guess I threw a couple too many."

Whatever the nature of Brennan's original sin, it was unlike Kefu to lose his rag in so public a fashion. A former Queensland Colt of the Year who was capped by the Wallabies at under-19 and under-21 levels, he generally tempers his rugged, forthright ball-carrying with a high degree of discipline. "It's drummed into us," he said. "Our whole approach is based around discipline: not just in the sense of staying on the right side of the rulebook, but in operating within the tactical framework. When we do back our instincts and play a little ad-lib rugby, it's because the game plan has been successful in laying the right kind of foundations."

Hardly the David Campese approach, it has to be said. "No, it's not," Kefu agreed. "But we've won pretty much everything that's going over the last couple of years, so you won't catch me knocking what we do. I like to play ball as much as the next guy; I had big ambitions as a basketball player when I was younger, and I thought very seriously before giving the sport away to concentrate on my rugby. One of the reasons I love the No 8 position is that it gives me the kind of freelance role I enjoy. But real satisfaction comes from winning Test matches and realising your goals as a team, and that's exactly what we've been doing." So what is the bottom line with these Wallaby tourists? What motivates a team of world champions to continue nurturing that special spirit, to retain those levels of focus and commitment in the face of a major rebuilding exercise? "The Aussie motivation? That's a big question," said Kefu. "I can only speak for myself here, because different people look at life in different ways. But for me, it's to do with putting my name in the history books. I want to be remembered as one of the best Wallaby No 8s and as a part of one of the best Wallaby sides of all time.

"People say that Australian rugby doesn't have the depth of tradition you associate with the All Blacks or the Springboks and I dare say that's true. But I see it this way: we're creating the Wallaby tradition right now, by winning World Cups and Bledisloe Cups and Tri-Nations titles. I would love to play for the Barbarians one day and it would be sweet to win a Super 12 with Queensland. But most of all, I want to stay a Wallaby. And to do that, I have to keep playing well enough to be selected. That much is straightforward."

What is not straightforward, in Kefu's view, is beating England at Twickenham. "The Wallabies have always rated them - at least, they have since I've been a part of the set-up. The English forward pack is as good as anything around and I thought they were pretty unlucky not to go further in the World Cup, when they had 'semi-final' stamped all over them. If this Australian side can win in London, it will be quite something."

By the same yardstick, it will be quite something if they lose. The Toutai Kefus of this rugby age are so used to winning that the possibility of failure scarcely occurs to them, while the English, good as they are, have learned to live with defeat. By the time the sound and fury dies away around Saturday tea-time, that psychological disparity may well have been revealed as decisive.

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