Tonga include four former All Blacks in team to face Ireland in Nantes

Fullback Salesi (Charles) Piutau, centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrumhalf Augustine Pulu and number eight Vaea Fifita to take the field

Tongan head coach Toutai Kefu has included four former All Blacks in his starting team for Saturday’s Rugby World Cup match against Ireland in the Stade de la Beaujoire (8.0, Irish time).

Fullback Salesi (Charles) Piutau, centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrumhalf Augustine Pulu and number eight Vaea Fifita underline the quality of player that Tonga can now call upon following World Rugby’s change in eligibility rules for what is their opening match of the tournament.

Piutau, who won 17 caps for New Zealand between his debut against France in 2013 and his final cap against South Africa in 2015 — he was omitted from the All Blacks squad for the World Cup that year — spent two years at Ulster where he excelled, winning various player of the year awards.

He then joined Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears where he is reputed to have become the highest-paid player in world rugby and linked with his brother Siale, the latter a former Tongan captain. While at the English club, he played under two Irish-born assistant coaches in Conor McPhillips and John Muldoon and occasionally alongside a third ex-Connacht employee in wing Niyi Adeolokun.


Fekitoa, helped Munster to the URC title, producing a series of excellent displays in the second half of the season before leaving to join Benetton in the summer. He is bidding to become only the second player after Frank Bunce (Samoa/New Zealand) to score for two different countries at a World Cup, having crossed for tries while an All Black against Namibia and Georgia in 2015.

He links with the excellent Pita Ahki who will be familiar to the Irish centre partnership on Bundee Aki having spent time in Connacht on one hand and been a regular adversary of Leinster for Toulouse in Champions Cup matches in recent years.

Tonga will be captained by former New Zealand under-20s tight-head prop Ben Tameifuna. He is joined in a huge frontrow by loose-head Siegfried Fisi’ihoi and hooker Paula Ngauamo, who between them, weigh 387kg (853lbs) with Castres hooker Ngauamo, a lightweight 18 stone.

The 33-year-old Augustine Pulu, who won two All Blacks caps in 2014 and now plays in Japan, is preferred to regular captain Sonatane Takulua at scrumhalf, renewing his half-back partnership with William Havili, brother of All Black David, from the 2022 tour to Romania.

Takulua became the first Tonga player to win 50 caps for Ikale Tahi when he led them against Japan in July and has clocked up more minutes than any of his team-mates this year (329). He has to settle for a place on the bench for the first time since a Test match against Fiji in July 2015.

The Mont de Marsan player is set to play in his third World Cup having made his tournament debut in the defeat to Georgia at RWC 2015.

Another face that will be familiar to Irish players is secondrow Leva Fifita who spent two seasons at Connacht, making 24 appearances and scoring two tries before following forwards’ coach at the Irish province Dewald Senekal to Oyonnax, newly promoted to the French Top 14 this season.

Leva’s 31-year-old younger brother, Vaea, won 11 caps for New Zealand between 2017 and 2019 and has been named at number eight. He spent eight years in Super Rugby between Wellington and the Hurricanes, before joining Wasps and then the Scarlets. There is no place in the match day 23 for ex-Wallaby Adam Coleman.

Tonga: S (Charles) Piutau; A Taumoepeau, M Fekitoa, P Ahki, S Kata; W Havili, A Pulu; S Fisi’ihoi, P Ngauamo, B Tameifuna (capt); S Lousi, L Fifita; T Halaifonua, S Talitui, V Fifita. Replacements: S Moli, T Koloamatangi, S Apikotoa, S Paea, S Funaki, S Vailanu, S Takulua, F Inisi.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer