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England and Scotland internationals pose a ‘logistical nightmare’ for Tonga, admits coach Richie Rees

The i 10/15/2021 Hugh Godwin

Tonga’s temporary attack coach Richie Rees has admitted the team who are the opening autumn international opponents for Scotland and England face a “logistical nightmare” to fulfil their European tour. However, Rees, who is on secondment from Cardiff, is backing the Tongans’ disparate squad as “the best in the world in any one-on-one situation”.

Tonga this week announced a squad of 40 players from leagues in 10 countries to face Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday 30 October, followed by England at Twickenham on Saturday 6 November, the French Barbarians and Romania.

The players will be arriving at staggered intervals, with a weakened party to take on the Scots, and Peter Harding, the chief executive of the Tonga Rugby Union, admitted there may be more changes due to problems with flights, MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) and contract negotiations. Samoa have already cancelled their European trip due to similar challenges.

Tonga will also be travelling without their head coach, Toutai Kefu. The former Australia back-rower and his family were attacked by knife- and machete-wielding intruders at their home in Brisbane in August, and Kefu and his wife Rachel and two of his children were rushed to hospital.

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While Kefu said this week they are all “making good progress”, the tour will be led instead by Grant Doorey – former assistant coach to Italy, Japan, Auckland Blues, London Irish and Toulon – and ex-Fiji coach John McKee, joined by Rees and Connacht’s forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.

Rees, the 38-year-old former scrum-half who made more than 250 senior appearances for clubs including Ospreys, London Irish and Edinburgh, will take a four-week break from Cardiff with his club’s blessing after next week’s URC match against Dragons, in a move signed off by World Rugby.

“The Scotland game is outside the international window,” Rees told i. “So a lot of the players are flying in for the England game.

“Then there are the challenges of how we get people back home to Tonga and New Zealand with Covid quarantines and so on. It is a logistical nightmare, and to be fair to Peter Harding and Grant Doorey, they have put in some great groundwork.

“With clubs in Division Two in France, it is a bit easier to get players out. But a few of the clubs in the Top 14 and the URC and the Gallagher Premiership have been accommodating too.

“It has allowed us to get a team together for Scotland and then give it a real crack against England.

“For me, this is international rugby and it should be a great experience with different players from a different culture. I have been talking with Toutai Kefu for the last few weeks on Zoom, making plans.”

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Tonga lost 35-3 to England in the World Cup two years ago, but a depleted team was routed 102-0 by New Zealand in July.

On the upside, former New Zealand centre Malakai Fekitoa and ex-Australia internationals Lopeti Timani and Afusipa Taumoepeau this year re-qualified for Tonga by playing in Olympic sevens. But Bristol’s full-back Charles Piutau failed to do the same when the Olympic event in Monaco in June clashed with his club’s Premiership play-off semi-final. And now Fekitoa of Wasps is out with a dislocated shoulder.

“If you talk about natural talent, the Island players are the best in the world in any one-on-one situation,” Rees said. “We will be very limited in training time before the Scotland game, so I know I have got to clarify and nail down exactly what I want. I cannot go with a massive playbook, so I’m concentrating on what I really want to get across. We are under no illusions how tough it will be.”

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