KUMAMOTO, Japan (AP)Telusa Veainu was far away when he watched Tonga’s Rugby World Cup upset win over France in 2011, even though he was in New Zealand.
Far away from international rugby, far from becoming one of the stars of the team.
“I was in New Zealand, at my cousin’s house. The whole family was glued to it and it inspired a lot of people,” Veainu said. “I didn’t think I was good enough at the time to become an international, and even in 2015 I didn’t really have anything contract-wise before Tonga threw me a lifeline.”
Tonga won that match 19-14 in one of the competition’s biggest upsets. The setback did the French a lot of good, though. From the humiliation of being torn apart by their unhappy media they went to reach the final and only just lost, 8-7 to the All Blacks in a nerve-shredder at Eden Park.
Having cheered the Tongans on television on that day eight years ago, TV can have a crack at the French for real in Sunday’s Pool C encounter and he’ll be buoyed by the two tries he scored in the 28-12 loss to Argentina.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge. Like Argentina. I think (France) will be trying to move the ball around,” said Veainu, who has finally shaken off a persistent foot injury sustained playing for Leicester Tigers.
Tonga lost its tournament opener to England 35-3, but it wasn’t entirely lopsided and the manner in which they rallied back from 28-0 down against Argentina was encouraging. Keen to keep that momentum going, head coach Toutai Kefu has made only two lineup changes for the match at Kumamoto Stadium.
Tight-head prop Ma’afu Fia replaces Ben Tameifuna and Cooper Vuna, who played two test matches for Australia in 2012, comes in for Viliami Lolohea on the right wing.
Add that to the fact France had only a four-day turnaround after beating the United States and there is cautious optimism in Tonga’s camp.
“It’s a tough one for them and I’m glad we didn’t have to work out how best to deal with that. But they are Tier 1, we will find out if they can handle it,” assistant Tonga coach Pita Alatini said. “With England to come in their last match, France are going to want a really good performance against us. We know they are going to target us, especially thinking back to 2011.”
France can maintain its unblemished record in always reaching the Rugby World Cup knockout round with a win.
Although coach Jacques Brunel brushed away questions about the England game by saying “I’m only thinking about Tonga.” Yet the fact he made 11 changes – having made 12 after the 23-21 win against Argentina – suggests he’s keeping his players fresh to face the English on Oct. 12.
The balance of that match could well be decided in the scrum between two mighty packs.
Hooker Guilhem Guirado, the regular captain, is again not in the starting XV so the armband goes to prop Jefferson Poirot. He came off the bench to score the fifth try against the U.S. Eagles. Scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, who came on to get the fourth, is also picked alongside flyhalf Romain Ntamack.
It is France’s third different halves combination at this tournament.
Three different captains, too: Guirado against Argentina, No. 8 Louis Picamoles in the 33-9 win against the Eagles, and now Poirot.
Ntamack regains his place at flyhalf after ceding it to Camille Lopez, who set up France’s two first-half tries against the Eagles with kicks over the top to each winger.
Wednesday’s win showed how inconsistent France still is, but it also showed they have some big-impact players on the bench. Guirado, who came on at halftime with France struggling against a gritty U.S. team, is on the bench along with Lopez.
“The U.S. did really well for a lot of the game, but we know what the French are like,” Alatini said. “They scored a couple of tries of pure magic early and then at the end they showed what they could do with the caliber of players they brought on.”
France: Maxime Medard, Damian Penaud, Virimi Vakatawa, Sofiane Guitoune, Alivereti Raka, Romain Ntamack, Baptiste Serin; Gregorie Alldritt, Charles Ollivon, Wenceslas Lauret, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Paul Gabrillagues, Rabah Slimani, Camille Chat, Jefferson Poirot (captain). Reserves: Guilhem Guirado, Cyril Baille, Emerick Setiano, Bernard Le Roux, Yacouba Camara, Antoine Dupont, Camille Lopez, Pierre-Louis Barassi.
Tonga: Telusa Veainu, Cooper Vuna, Malietoa Hingano, Siale Piutau (captain), David Halaifonua, James Faiva, Sonatane Takulua; Maama Vaipulu, Zane Kapeli, Sione Kalamafoni, Leva Fifita, Sam Lousi, Ma’afu Fia, Paula Ngauamo, Siegfried Fisiihoi. Reserves: Sosefo Sakalia, Vunipola Fifita, Siua Halanukonuka, Sitiveni Mafi, Nasi Manu, Leon Fukofuka, Latiume Fosita, Atieli Pakalani.
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