Tonga wary of Wales despite Gatland’s sweeping changes
Kefu expects reshuffled opponents to have strong set piece and good kicking game
Liam Williams will win his 50th cap for Wales when he plays against Tonga on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Wales v Tonga, Principality Stadium, Saturday, 2.30 (BBC One)
For all World Rugby’s efforts to give emerging nations greater exposure to the leading teams in between World Cups, Tonga’s match with Wales in Cardiff on Saturday is only their third against a tier one country in three years.
They will double that tally in the opening three rounds of next year’s World Cup in Japan when they face England, Argentina and France in a two-week period far more demanding than they are used to.
Although they are up against a Wales side that shows 14 changes from the team that defeated Australia last weekend, their opponents have been in camp for the best part of a month. Tonga, whose side is made up of players based in France, England, New Zealand and Wales, warmed up with a victory over the French Barbarians in Bordeaux last weekend.
“There are a few areas we have to work on, but we are heading in the right direction,” the Tonga coach, Toutai Kefu, a number eight in his playing days who won 60 caps for Australia said. “Wales may not have picked their strongest team, but they are still Wales and will have a strong set piece and good kicking game. They won’t give us much and we will need to take care of the ball.”
Tonga were the runners-up in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup, although they went on to defeat the champions, Fiji. They lost to Wales in Auckland last year having beaten Italy in Padova in the 2016 autumn series. They are captained by the Bristol centre Siale Piutau with the Newcastle scrumhalf Tane Takulua their goal-kicker and conductor.
Wales have not lost at home for nearly a year and after overcoming their nemesis Australia are on course to go through a four-match autumn campaign unbeaten with South Africa to come next week. They have, though, often struggled against tier two opponents having made sweeping changes.
They laboured to a 13-6 victory over Georgia last year, beat Japan with a late drop goal in 2016 and in the years before that failed to score points in the second half against Fiji and Tonga. Leicester’s fullback Jonah Holmes makes his Test debut on an afternoon when the Saracens wing Liam Williams wins his 50th cap.
“We are not getting ahead of ourselves,” Wales head coach Warren Gatland said, “but we feel we are in a good place. We have not been talking about South Africa this week: the focus has been Tonga. We have made a lot of changes but everyone knows that he has the chance to put himself in contention to face South Africa.”
WALES: Jonah Holmes; Liam Williams, Tyler Morgan, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown; Jake Ball, Adam Beard; Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins (capt), Seb Davies.
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Aled Davies, Rhys Patchell, Josh Adams.
TONGA: Vunga Lilo; Viliami Lolohea, Alaska Taufa, Siale Piutau (capt), Daniel Kilioni; Kurt Morath, Sonatane Takulua: Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Paula Ngauamo, Ma’afu Fia; Leva Fifita, Sitiveni Mafi; Dan Faleafa, Fotu Lokotui, Sione Vailanu.
Replacements: Sefo Sakalia, Latu Talakai, Paea Fa’anunu, Onehunga Havili, Mike Faleafa, Leon Fukofuka, Kali Hala, Atieli Pakalani.