When Ireland step onto the pitch of Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes tonight, they’ll be squaring off against a spirited Tongan side for the second time in Rugby World Cup history. While the distance between Ireland and Tonga may be vast geographically, the clash may actually be more closely contested than many Irish fans anticipate. Andy Farrell’s men cannot afford to underestimate their Pacific Island challenge. 

The rise of the Pacific Island teams – Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji – is one of the most riveting narratives of this World Cup. Historically viewed as the minnows of the tournament, these nations now possess the tools and talent to challenge the established elite.

The journey to this World Cup hasn’t been an easy one for these nations. They’ve had to fight tooth and nail for recognition, despite their colossal contribution to the global rugby landscape. What’s intriguing is that these islands, which lack professional domestic competitions, have still managed to emerge as the cradle of rugby talent, feeding clubs across New Zealand, Australia, Europe, and Japan with remarkable players.

A glimpse into the squads of this World Cup underscores the Pacific Islands’ impact on the global stage. Ireland’s own Bundee Aki, while born in Auckland, epitomises the Samoan spirit. England proudly fields players like Manu Tuilagi of Samoan descent and Billy Vunipola, a product of Tongan heritage. The French team is also not left untouched by the Pacific skill set, with stalwarts like Peato Mauvaka, Sipili Falatea, and Yoram Moefana enriching the side.

As Rugby World Cup 2023 unfolds, it’s evident that the Pacific Island teams are more than just making up the numbers. Given their trajectory and the world-class talent in their ranks, they stand poised to be genuine title contenders in future World Cups in 2027 and 2031.

Pacific Island rugby is a dynamic sporting spectacle

The profound essence of Pacific Island rugby is not just reflected in the prowess showcased on the field, but equally in the cultural symphony that precedes each match. The heartfelt renditions of their anthems, combined with the power of pre-match ceremonies like Fiji’s ‘Cibi’, Samoa’s ‘Siva Tau’, and Tonga’s ‘Sipi Tau’, encapsulate the passionate spirit and unwavering commitment of these nations to the sport. These rituals are not mere performances. They are heartfelt displays of their rich heritage and the central role rugby holds in their cultures.

On the field, their rugby is a dynamic spectacle, characterised by deft offloads, direct running, and raw skill and strength. This style of play is not just about the game, it’s a manifestation of the deeply rooted rugby ethos that pervades their societies.

Historically, the Pacific Islands have been the pulse of excitement in World Cup tournaments. Their matches are not mere games but electric experiences that have graced sections of World Cup history. The recent testament to their mettle was Fiji’s astounding performance against England in Twickenham and the commendable performance against Wales last week.

Such feats emphasise that these nations are not just participating for formality’s sake. Every time they lace up their boots and march onto the pitch, it’s with a resolute spirit, tangible aspirations, and a clear intent to challenge and conquer the traditional powerhouses of rugby. 

Fijian World Cup history has been filled with magic

Peeling back the layers of Pacific rugby history unveils an enthralling narrative. The sport was introduced to the islands by European missionaries, sailors, and returned servicemen who had experienced the joys of rugby abroad.

Under their influence, rugby quickly ingrained itself into the fabric of the Pacific society, kindling a love affair with the sport that has endured through generations. Today, that romance is as vibrant as ever, ensuring that the Pacific Islands are not just participants but powerful protagonists in the world of rugby.

Dubbed the “Flying Fijians”, Fiji’s sojourn into the annals of Rugby World Cup history is filled with moments of magic. Memorably, their heroic stints in 1987 and 2007 saw them bulldoze their way to the quarter-finals, marking victories over rugby titans Argentina and Wales. The Wales game was in the same venue where Ireland play Tonga tonight.

 While the traditional 15-a-side game has brought them acclaim, it’s in the Rugby Sevens format that Fiji has truly soared. Their unparalleled dominance in Sevens culminated in a golden moment at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Not only did they clinch gold, but they also secured Fiji’s first-ever Olympic medal.

Samoa, on the other hand, made an explosive World Cup debut in 1991. Their victory over Wales in Cardiff wasn’t just a game-winner, it was a statement to the world. Their stellar campaign that year led them to the quarter-finals, where they battled fiercely, eventually succumbing to Scotland. But the echoes of their feats still resonate in the corridors of rugby history.

They represent the heart soul and spirit of rugby

Tonga’s history in the World Cup might not be sprinkled with quarter-final landmarks, but their journey is a testament to tenacity and relentless spirit. Consistent participants in the last seven tournaments, they’ve often donned the mantle of underdogs, springing surprises when least expected. Their 2011 triumph against France, securing a 19-14 win, is the stuff of legend. And they nearly repeated this magic in 2019, coming agonisingly close against the French with a final score of 23-21.

Together, these Pacific nations represent the heart, soul, and indomitable spirit of the sport, challenging narratives and consistently reminding the world of their prowess on the rugby pitch.

For the vibrant Pacific Island nations, rugby is more than just a sport. It’s an emblem of identity and pride, even as it reflects the broader challenges they face. Talented powerhouses like Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji often grapple with the absence of professional rugby leagues on their shores. Limited domestic platforms and under-investment in training facilities means they’re often battling to fully harness their innate talent.

For many Pacific players, the allure of European leagues and Super Rugby franchises has been too strong to resist, resulting in a diaspora of talent. The roots of this exodus lie not just in rugby but in broader societal struggles. Post-colonial economic disparities and political unrest in Fiji, Samoa’s journey towards a distinct national identity, and Tonga’s geographic isolation have influenced their athletes to seek more stable opportunities abroad.

The long-term vision for the Pacific teams is promising

Yet, amidst these challenges, there’s a glimmer of hope. The integration of Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua into the Super Rugby Pacific competition signifies a seismic shift. While the pandemic posed numerous challenges, it also prompted New Zealand and Australia to deepen ties with their Pacific neighbours.

SuperRugby’s decision to incorporate Pacific teams transcends mere expansion. It’s a nod towards inclusivity, recognising the unique rugby culture of these islands. While initial rosters may lack familiar stars and raise questions about competitiveness, the long-term vision is undeniably promising. There is a more inclusive and globally resonant Super Rugby landscape on the horizon.

World Rugby’s commitment to supporting the Pacific Islands is evident in their efforts to level the playing field. Rugby often represents a lifeline for many in these nations, a means of surmounting economic challenges and securing brighter futures. Recognising the significant talent drain the Pacific Islands have historically faced, World Rugby has now introduced game-changing eligibility rules.

Allowing players to switch Test teams after a three-year break, given their genuine ties to the nation, provides a tremendous boost to Pacific nations and allows them to potentially reclaim their star players. Such a monumental shift promises to not only elevate the stature of Pacific Island rugby but also reshape international rugby’s dynamics. 

These players are symbols of a nation’s inspiration

When the Irish rugby team faces Tonga and stands eye-to-eye with the intimidating ‘Sipi Tau’, they’ll not only be met with fierce tradition but also the rejuvenated might of Tonga’s prodigal sons. Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa, and Vaea Fifita. Names that once reverberated in the halls of New Zealand rugby now carry the hopes of an entire nation. These are not mere players but symbols of a nation’s inspirations.

With the prowess of 17 All Blacks Test caps, Piutau’s Tongan roots pull him towards a deeper calling. Fekitoa, with 24 caps, now embraces the land of his birth. Meanwhile, Fifita makes a triumphant return to international rugby, donning the jersey of the ‘Ikale Tahi. Their stories are emblematic of a broader narrative, the bridge between heritage and global prowess.

They are bound by the common thread of seeking to elevate Tonga on the world rugby stage. The addition of these giants to the squad is more than a nod to their skill. It’s a beacon of hope to every budding talent in the islands. Their experience, strategies, and sheer expertise should galvanise Tonga, making them a force to be reckoned with. With such calibre in their ranks, the rugby world’s eyes will inevitably turn towards Tonga.

Pacific rugby’s story has always been one of passion and pride, of David defying Goliaths. This evolution in the game, from changes in eligibility rules to embracing Pacific teams in Super Rugby, augments the story. Players, once confined by regulations, now find their dreams reignited. Representing their ancestral homes, they’re presented with an unparalleled chance to stamp their legacy.

It would be dangerous to underestimate the Pacific Islanders

As rugby’s dynamics shift, one thing is certain, the unpredictable nature of the game remains its charm. The strategic plays, the adrenaline rushes, the last-minute game changers all underline the game’s unpredictable nature, making every match a spectacle.

When it comes to sheer preparation, conditioning, and technical ability, Ireland stands on firmer ground. Their experience, refined over regular international matches, should give them an edge against Tonga. Historically, match-ups of this nature would have been brushed off as ‘easy games’ for Ireland. But tonight, that presumption could be misleading, even perilous.

The evolved Tongan side, reinvigorated by the return of their prodigal sons, poses a unique challenge. This isn’t the same team of old. it’s a side steeped in tradition, yet revamped with world-class experience. Ireland, despite all their expertise, might just find themselves walking on a potential banana skin.

It would be an error of judgment to underestimate the Pacific Islanders. Their passion, combined with the newfound experience in their ranks, means they’re equipped not just to participate, but to challenge, to push boundaries, and to surprise. Ireland, while being the favourites, would be wise to approach the game with caution, strategy, and respect.

While Ireland is expected to dominate, don’t be surprised if Tonga pushes them to their limits, making the final stages of the match uncomfortable viewing for Irish fans. 

Interpath Sports, Media and Entertainment
Interpath Sports, Media and Entertainment

The Currency’s coverage of the Rugby World Cup is sponsored by Interpath Advisory.

Interpath Advisory supports businesses, their investors, and stakeholders with critical financial advisory and restructuring services.  Enhanced by technology, Interpath’s purpose is to create, defend, preserve, sustain, and grow value. Interpath in Ireland operates across 3 offices in Dublin, Cork, and Belfast.