WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Tonga struggled to assemble a team but still beat the Cook Islands 54-10 on Saturday in a qualifying match for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.
With its Europe-based players unavailable, Tonga used 17 new caps in tests against New Zealand and Samoa this month, then named six more in its lineup to play the Cook Islands in Saturday’s Oceania qualifier at Pukekohe, south of Auckland.
Tonga will go on to play whoever becomes Asian champion — Hong Kong, Malaysia or South Korea — in an Asia-Pacific qualifying match for a place beside South Africa, Ireland and Scotland at Pool B in France.
The Cook Islands still have a chance to qualify through the final qualifying tournament in which it will compete against teams from the Americas, Europe and Africa for the 20th and last place in the world tournament.
Tonga’s player shortage was so great before Saturday’s match that head coach Toutai Kefu, the former Wallabies backrower, asked “anyone know any Tongans?” He was only half joking. Kefu estimated Tonga had identified almost 25 props who were eligible for selection and all turned him down.
Tonga had 30 available players prior to the second test of their qualifying series against Samoa last weekend. That had fallen to 27 ahead of Saturday’s match, either through injuries or because some had to return to full-time jobs.
“There’s a list of players that you have and we’ve all gone through those,” Kefu told Radio New Zealand. “We’ve gone through probably 50, 60, 70 players I’d say. It’s just basically ringing agents, ringing coaches, club coaches, even asking players ‘does anyone know any Tongans?’
“We were white-boarding names last night and counting how many props turned us down. It was nearly 25," he added.
Tonga was still too strong for the Cook Islands, who were playing their first international match in almost three years.
The Cook Islands scored first with a penalty to scrumhalf Tokahirere Sopoaga whose brother, former All Blacks flyhalf Lima Sopoaga, was part of the team’s coaching staff.
Tries to winger Fifita Walter and center Sam Vaka put Tonga ahead 14-3 but the Cook Islands scored through hooker Ben Tou to cut the lead to 14-10 midway through the first half.
Tonga finished the half strongly to lead 26-10 at halftime and ran away in the second half with try-scoring doubles to captain Sonatane Takulua and Sione Tuipolotu.
“You just don’t know about these games and the first 10 minutes they put up a really really good fight,” Kefu said. “We knew if we kept the pressure on we could finally break them, and we thought probably just after halftime we could feel a little more comfortable."
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