Tongans threaten to launch 'human torpedoes'

Ian Borthwick reports from Pretoria on the South Pacific islanders for whom the World Cup adventure is a noble cause
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The Independent Online
The king of Tonga does not miss much. His quaint wooden palace with its red tin roof sits in the shade of coconut palms on the edge of the great lagoon at Nuku'alofa, but in this sleepy South Sea idyll, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV still rules with an iron hand, deciding - much as his ancestors have done for the past 1,000 years - on the slightest facet of life in this tiny archipelago.

It was he, after all, who decreed that the Tongan XV were to be called the Ikale Tahi (the sea eagles) and it was he who with his own royal hand penned the words of the Tongans' blood-thirsty new sipitau, or war cry.

Lying only a few degrees west of the international dateline, Tonga likes to be known as the kingdom where time begins. But this independent constitutional monarchy - the only country in the South Pacific never to have been colonised - is also the land where time has stopped. Society, where people are classified between royals and commoners, is still virtually feudal in nature. Accordingly, the Tongan Rugby Union, realising the deep rooted respect and unquestioning obeisance which is afforded to "nobles", have appointed the ex-prince Mailefihi Tuku'aho as manager.

As for Nuku'alofa, the capital, aside from its impressive collection of churches, it is little more than a cluster of dusty buildings and a handful of streets virtually untouched by the 20th century. There is not one set of traffic lights in the whole country, television is practically non-existent (although a number of satellite dishes have sprung up in preparation for the World Cup) and those players who have not yet been lured overseas to the bright lights and big pay packets of Sydney, Auckland, or even Tokyo, live the most simple of existences with salaries of scarcely of 60 Pa'anga (pounds 25) per week.

By far the smallest country (748 square kilometres) participating in the World Cup, Tonga counts little more than 100,000 inhabitants. And despite the murderous intent of their pre-match war cry they have little chance of making an impact on the competition. Unless, of course, they can manage to do what their South Pacific neighbours, Fiji and Samoa, did - in 1987 and 1991 respectively - and create a major surprise.

"Our aim is to beat France in the first game," their coach Fakahau Valu, says. "I don't think we can beat Scotland, as they know us too well. But the French have never seen us play, and I believe we can surprise them."

Like the Samoans, the Tongans love nothing better than intense physical contact. They have that same explosive Polynesian power and immense natural strength (which is just as well as there are still no weight training gyms in the country) while individual Tongan players such as Viliame (Willie) Ofahengaue (Australia) or Jonah Lomu (New Zealand) have already proved that technically they can match it with the best.

Their problem lies in the overriding South Seas machismo, of brawn over brain and the love of the big hit either in attack or defence. "They love to show off their strength, to show off their bodies and that they're stronger than the others," muses Tuluta Fisi'ihoi, the first XV coach at Tupou College, Tonga's celebrated rugby nursery. "We are trying to change things, but too often they forget about the passing and just run straight up the middle. Without exception, they all love to go for the big crunch!"

There is little doubt that the French will have too much firepower in the set phases for Tonga to cause an upset in their opening game at Pretoria tomorrow. "Of course the French can beat anyone in the world," says Takitoa Taomeopeau, the 34-year-old general secretary of the TRU and a 16-and- a-half stone centre to boot. "But I wonder how they will go with 15 Tongans running at them and hitting them. I tell you there will be 15 human torpedoes out there!"

No doubt the words of their king will be ringing in their ears as they do so: "We are ready for battle, for now is the calm before the storm. We'll rip to pieces, poke and smash and hurl into touch. For that is the way of the Pacific."