Toutai Kefu hopes his ‘Ikale Tahi players can give the people of Tonga a “massive reason to smile” when they take on Samoa in their Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifier.

Tonga will meet Samoa at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on Saturday, in the first leg of the play-off to determine the Oceania 1 qualifier for France 2023.

The second leg will take place at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on 17 July with the aggregate winner taking their place in Pool D, alongside England, Japan, Argentina and the Americas 2 qualifier.

Tonga remains one of the few countries in the world yet to record a COVID-19 case, however, that does not mean the pandemic has not had an impact on the Pacific Island nation.

A State of Emergency has been in place since March 2020, and the population will continue to live under its restrictions until at least 2 August.

“[Qualification] would mean so much to our people,” ‘Ikale Tahi coach Kefu told World Rugby. 

“I remember when we qualified for the last World Cup, our whole island nation was abuzz and I got a lot of fanfare and a lot of mail and positive remarks for making the World Cup. 

“Especially with all the challenges that we've faced, if we were able to do that, not only would our supporters be very happy, but I think it would give them a massive reason to smile and [provide] some happiness in their lives.”

Not giving up

Travel restrictions relating to the pandemic ensured that Kefu was unable to call on his full-strength squad for the matches against Samoa, or last weekend’s defeat to New Zealand.

A Tonga squad featuring 13 uncapped players conceded 16 tries as they lost 102-0 to the All Blacks in Auckland, but Kefu, a Rugby World Cup winner with Australia in 1999, has been impressed with his players’ attitude in training this week and praised their ability to recover from what was a painful defeat.

“Obviously bringing the team together and selecting the team, there were a few challenges,” Kefu said.

“The majority of them came from New Zealand, so that was exciting to see new players. And, I think some of those players will go on to have some really long careers with the 'Ikale Tahi. 

“It’s had some challenges, it is what it is. Samoa had the same type of challenges we've had, in terms of bringing a team together, preparing them. 

“They probably had an extra week and an extra game more than us. But, for our boys, I'm just proud of the way that they just pushed that aside and just move forward.”

Kefu added: “The boys just didn't give up (against New Zealand), they kept going right to the final whistle.

“No one likes to get beaten by 100 points and I could feel their embarrassment. I really feel for the boys, but we've had some really good support from loyal supporters, and family and friends. 

“So that's been great, you know, this week can't come quick enough really so we can put that All Blacks game behind us.”

Bright future ahead

Kefu will be able to call on Rugby World Cup 2019 prop Ben Tameifuna against Manu Samoa, after he completed a period of quarantine.

Tonga do have injury concerns over several players who played last weekend, but their coach is confident they have enough quality within the squad to beat Samoa.

“It's always been pretty close between our Pacific brothers, and they're very competitive,” Kefu said. “They've had the same profile as us. We've identified probably a few opportunities that hopefully we can take advantage of. 

“Everyone knows within the squad and throughout the management that it's going to be a really hard game and there's not going to be much in it.”

Kefu coached Tonga at Japan 2019 and believes the Pacific Island nation has the talent to make an impact at a Rugby World Cup in the future.

“We've got a huge future and it does look bright. We've just had a restructure in our governance and administration,” he said.

“I think we're on the right track in terms of having the right people in the right places in our governance. 

“We can only go from strength to strength. And, one of my biggest dreams is to make the quarter-finals in the World Cup. 

“If we don't do that this time around then hopefully next time around. I certainly think we're getting better and better as a nation.”

READ MORE: Samoa v Tonga: All you need to know before the Rugby World Cup qualification showdown >>