Tongans claim Mahoni is victim of mistaken identity

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The Independent Online
The King of Tonga, Taufa'Ahau Tupou IV, is expected to give a "royal pardon" to the player who was sent off against France last Friday. Feleti Mahoni is innocent, the Tongans claim.

Mahoni was given his marching orders by the English referee, Steve Lander, during the second half of the opening Group D match in Pretoria for stamping. Tonga maintains it was a case of mistaken identity and that in any case the player responsible was rucking the ball, not stamping on a Frenchman's head.

"I watched the video and I couldn't believe what I saw," Manakaetau Otai, the No 8, said. "It wasn't Mahoni. There was no justice at all. We only had four hours to appeal and it didn't give us time to prepare a case. If the officials had looked at the film properly, they would have seen it couldn't have been Mahoni. He was wearing low cut boots and the player doing the rucking was wearing high boots."

Mahoni, who was banned for six weeks, was sent home on Sunday. At the disciplinary hearing he pleaded not guilty, but it did not help that neither of the two Tongan officials present spoke English. Otai, who plays for Manawatu in New Zealand, added: "Mahoni was supposed to have stamped on Cecillon, but at the time Cecillon was not on the pitch. Rugby is the No 1 sport in Tonga and everybody back home knows Mahoni shouldn't have been sent off."

"Everybody" includes the King, an avid rugby follower. When the Tongans were asked if they had taken any action against the player whom they believe was responsible for the "offence", they said they had rested him from tonight's game against Scotland at the Loftus Versfeld. They were referring to the lock, Falamani Mafi. "There is a lot of feeling about this," Otai said.

Meanwhile, Scotland were also angry but for different reasons. A local newspaper carried a report that Scotland had been banned from a bar in Pretoria after upsetting customers and causing damage. "Girls arrive just in time to calm down the rowdy Scots," the headline said, referring to the fact that wives and girlfriends were allowed a weekend with the squad.

When the Scotland management read it, they hit the roof, metaphorically speaking, of course. Duncan Paterson, the manager, maintaining the story was fabricated, demanded an immediate retraction and apology.

With both teams bearing a grudge, it could be a lively encounter. "For us, this is do-or-die stuff," Otai said. "We have to win." Scotland, following their 89-0 victory over Ivory Coast, make eight changes, most of them in the pack, for what they admit will be a "more physical" challenge. Mind you, a game against Littlehampton would represent a more physical test after the Ivorians.

David Hilton, recovered from injury, and Kenny Milne come into the front row; Damian Cronin into the second row and Eric Peters and Iain Morrison into the back row. Ian Jardine, who broke his leg near the end of that memorable victory over France in Paris during the Five Nations' Championship, and Scott Hastings, who has been in and out of the side all season, are paired at centre.

"We have picked a team to match the occasion," Paterson said. "Without being disrespectful to the Ivory Coast, Tonga will be a very different proposition." The Tongans made life awkward for France, winning plenty of possession, but they failed to kick their goals and were outflanked once Mahoni was sent off.

"We are treating every game as if it was the final," Otai said. "We are here as one big family." Under the threat of a 20 Rand fine (about pounds 4) for being late, he curtailed his interview to attend the Tongans' daily prayer meeting. Their official church is the Free Wesleyan and they have already said a little prayer for Mahoni.

LOFTUS VERSFELD TEAMS

SCOTLAND v TONGA

G Hastings Watsonians, capt 15 S Tu'ipoluto New South Wales

C Joiner Melrose 14 A Taufa Wellington Harlequins

S Hastings Watsonians 13 V Va'enuku Toloa OB

I Jardine Stirling County 12 P Latu Vaheloto

K Logan Stirling County 11 T Va'enuku Police

C Chalmers Melrose 10 'E Vunipola Toa-Ko-Ma'afu

D Patterson West Hartlepool 9 M Vunipola Toa-Ko-Ma'afu

D Hilton Bath 1 S Fe'ao Queensland

K Milne Heriot's FP 2 F Vunipola Toa-Ko-Ma'afu

P Wright Boroughmuir 3 T Fukofuka Grammar OB

D Cronin Bourges 4 W Lose North Harbour

G Weir Melrose 5 P Latukefu Australian Cap Terr

R Wainwright West Hartlepool 6 'I Afeaki Wellington

E Peters Bath 8 M Otai Kia-Toa, capt

I Morrison London Scottish 7 I Fenukitau Grammar OB

Referee: B Leask (Australia). Kick-off: 7.0 (ITV )

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