The Cook Islands return to the field for the first time in three years as they face Tonga in the Asia/Pacific qualifier in Pukekohe this Saturday.
Playing their last international against Hong Kong at the RWC 2019 Repechage in July 2018, the Cook Islands had their first hit-out two weeks ago against Tasman Mako, losing 31-24, before a 73-0 loss to the New Zealand U20 side last weekend.
The match against 'Ikale Tahi will be the fourth time the two sides have squared off and the first in 15 years, with Tonga winning their last encounter 90-0 in July 2006.
Tonga leads the head-to-head 3-0, outscoring the Cook Islands 235-22, with former Cook Islands prop Stan Wright the only player to have scored a try against the Tongans.
The side coached by former Cook Islands international Nathan Robinson, with former All Black flyhalf Lima Sopoaga joining the coaching staff – his mother has Cook Island heritage.
Sopoaga will be joined by his three younger brothers, all set to make their test debuts, as Tupou captains the side, Tokahirere starts at scrumhalf, and Ezekiel on the bench.
Robinson has named 14 debutants, with only prop Alex Matapo, flanker Rob Heather, flyhalf Reece Joyce and replacements Tuakana Paitai and Matamanea Matapakia part of their last Rugby World Cup qualification quest in 2018.
Despite the lack of experience and gameplay, Robinson is happy with the progress of his squad.
“The cohesion has been really, really good from day one," said Robinson.
"This is probably our best set-up we've ever had so, going into this, this is probably the best our boys have ever (been) received or been treated. It's a bonus for them."
Robinson acknowledges the all the pressure is on the Tongan side, giving his team the freedom to simply go out and play.
"There's no pressure on us, that's our biggest asset. There is no expectation from the world for us to win, apart from our people and ourselves, so we've just got to come through that back door and play footy."
Tonga has made numerous changes to the team that went down 37-15 against Samoa, with a host of players unavailable because of injury, bereavement, work and club commitments.
Only nine of the matchday 23 return this weekend, as hooker Siua Maile, lock Harrison Mataele and number eight Nasi Manu all ruled out after sustaining injuries in the first 20 minutes in Hamilton.
Six debutants will suit up for 'Ikale Tahi, with Bay of Plenty squad member Semisi Paea starting at lock, while former Tonga Under 20s player Kelemete Finau will debut on the blindside flank.
They are joined on the bench by Grammar TEC back-rower Nela Matakaiongo, former New Zealand Under 20s number eight Tovo Faleafa, Waikato Development centre Paula Mahe and Tonga Sevens co-captain John Tapueluelu.
Two more sevens players will earn their first test start, with Tonga Sevens international Walter Fifita and former New Zealand Sevens player Sam Vaka starting in the backline.
The Tongans maintain some stability in the backline with captain Sonatane Takulua and flyhalf James Faiva partnering again in the halves, while Fine Insi starts again at outside centre and Nikolai Foliaki moving to fullback.
Despite being rated almost 40 places higher, 'Ikale Tahi captain Sonatane Takulua said the team was 100 per cent focused on their clash with the Cook Islands.
"We had some injuries but we've prepared really well this week, I'm really confident in our new players, they have slotted right in"
"We haven't got the results we wanted these last few weeks but are aiming to end this tour well and we're going to walk towards the challenge the Cooks will throw at us with confidence"
The match will be officiated by Graham Cooper, with the Australian taking charge of his first men’s international match after six tests in the women’s game – including three at RWC 2017.
The winner will progress to the Asia/Pacific Play Off against the 2021 Asia Rugby champion.
The Asia/Pacific Qualifier features in the double header at Navigation Homes Stadium this weekend and will follow the Counties Manukau Heat’s first home game of the 2021 Farrah Palmer Cup against the Bay of Plenty.
Counties Manukau Rugby Union chief executive Aaron Lawton is thrilled to bring international rugby to Pukekohe for the first time in a number of years.
“It is fantastic to bring a game of this quality to our region,” Lawton said. “We have some players from our region that will be competing in the match, and it will be great to have their friends and family along to cheer them on.
“It will be a big day with the Counties Power Heat playing their first home game of the Farah Palmer Cup campaign.
“There has been a lot of hard work gone in from the team here at the Union to make this happen and I thank them for their efforts in making this possible.
“It has been a goal of the Union’s to use Navigation Homes Stadium more and I am thrilled to be holding international rugby and high-level football at the facility within the space of a couple of weeks.”
Tonga v Cook Islands
- Saturday 24th July 2021
- Kick-off at 5:35pm (Local)
- Navigation Home Stadium, Pukekohe
- Broadcast on Sky (NZ), Digicel (Pacific Islands) and Stan Sport (Australia)
Full match results can be found here