World Cup Tales – TONGA with Kurt Morath

Tonga logoSo, the party’s over for another four years and we can get back to the constant cycle of ‘building for the World Cup’ again. The slate is wiped clean, recent failings can be consigned to history, and fresh hope for a new dawn that will ultimately end in triumph in England 2015 can begin to take hold. But what can each country take away from this World Cup, in particular, those that didn’t make it through to the last three weeks.

Unsurprisingly, the eight Quarter-Finalists contained all four previous trophy winners and all were ranked in the IRB top ten prior to the tournament, so there wasn’t too much in the way of surprises to be found. Only Scotland’s failure to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time, the unexpectedly exciting Welsh charge to the semi-finals, and the travails of the inimitable French – who lost to Tonga, repeatedly hit the self destruct button, but still went within a whisker of spoiling New Zealand’s party – caused a minor furrowing of brows.

The fortunes of the final eight have been more or less dissected by the world’s media in the aftermath of the tournament, none more so than England who have managed to achieve more indecent exposure than Lady Gaga in recent weeks. But what of the sides that caught the first flights home?

Some were simply happy to be a part of the game’s showpiece, and with lower expectations, their fans partied into the night no matter what the result. Others like the Pacific Nations and Scotland, went home with a huge sense of underachievement. Tonga took part on opening night against the hosts, achieved that historic victory over the French and had some of the most vocal and passionate supporters following them around the islands.

But defeat to Canada ultimately cost them a place in the latter stages. Fly-half Kurt Morath, who pulled the strings and plundered over half his team’s points through his prodigious boot, tells us their story…

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GAME 1 – TONGA 10 NEW ZEALAND 41

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The opening game of the tournament against the hosts and favourites – it doesn’t get much bigger an occasion than that. Was it hard for the team to put that out of their minds and just focus on the game?

Kurt Morath: “There had been a lot of talk about the first game from when the draw first came out. I know a lot of guys were aiming to be a part of that game as it was such a big occasion. It was one of those opportunities that doesn’t come around very often so everyone wanted to be a part of it.”

You were four tries and 29-3 behind at half-time. What was the feeling in the sheds because the scoreline could have blown out if you hadn’t changed things?

KM: “We knew that they were going to come out firing and I think everyone felt that we hadn’t really fired a shot. We didn’t get a lot of possession in the first half, so we knew if we could hold on to the ball then we’d be able to put them under pressure.”

You came back out and took the All Blacks on at scrum time and got some pay. Was there always a belief that you had the pack capable of doing some damage in this tournament?

KM: “I think traditionally teams expect Tonga to be strong up front, and especially with the front rowers that we had available, we were always going to back ourselves in that area of the game.”

A second half score of only 11-7 in their favour tells its own story. Despite the loss, the performance must have given you encouragement for the rest of the competition?

KM: “Yeah, we took a lot out of the second half performance especially. I think the speed of the opening twenty minutes caught us off guard a bit but once we got ourselves into the game we felt we played reasonably well.”

You kicked two from three in what must have been an incredible atmosphere, have you experienced anything like that before?

KM: “I’ve definitely never experienced that sort of atmosphere before. A packed house at Eden Park was pretty amazing and something I’ll never forget for sure.”

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GAME 2 – TONGA 20 CANADA 25

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You led this one 20-13 with quarter of an hour remaining but two substitutions from Canada re-energised them and they came home strongly with two late tries to snatch the win. Is this one that got away?

KM: “I think looking back on it, it was the one that got away. Had we won that match we would’ve gone through to the Quarter-Finals and once you get there, who knows what could happen. It’s a bit disappointing but that’s the way rugby goes.”

After your performance against the All Blacks, a lot of people backed you in for this one but Canada proved to be a real handful didn’t they?

KM: “The opener against the All Blacks was always going to be a long shot. A lot of emphasis was put into that game to put in a good performance and with the short turn around, maybe we didn’t quite get up to the same level for the Canadians.”

You spent twice as long inside the Canucks’ 22 but couldn’t convert that pressure into points?

KM: “I think we managed to get into their red zone but made too many easy turn overs once we were there. Little errors crept into our game at the wrong time, which let them off a bit easily.”

Canada’s work rate and defence in this game was superb and their tackle count reflects that. Is it fair to say that they won because they were the side that possibly wanted it more on the day?

KM: “I’d say that’s probably a fair comment. Looking back on the video they were far more aggressive than us, especially at the breakdown, which seemed to cause us a few problems. At the end of the day we only had ourselves to blame for the loss.”

Eleven changes were made from the starting XV that faced the All Blacks. Given the ridiculously short amount of time you had between the two games that made sense. But do you think you lost a bit of momentum from that second half at Eden Park as a result?

KM: “I think we only had the one training session due to the short turn around and making that many changes was always going to be a risk. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, but had we kept the same side from the opening match it may not have made a difference.”

Kurt Morath_Tonga v France_2011 RWC

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 GAME 3 – TONGA 31 JAPAN 18

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Victory at last but this was a tight affair with both sides sharing almost equal possession and territory. But it was fewer errors and greater aggression at the breakdown that got you home. Is that how you saw it?

KM: “I think our aggression at the breakdown was the complete opposite to the Canadian game, and it proved to be the winning part of this match for us. I think we worked a lot harder over the ball to slow their ball down, as well as forcing the amount of turn overs which came with that.”

You slotted six from seven with the boot in this one, and you apparently put a lot of extra kicking practice in prior to the game. You must have been pleased that the extra work paid off when it mattered?

KM: “After the conditions from the Canadian game I just wanted to get a better feel for the ground. We went down by a point in both my previous matches against Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup, so this match was always going to be tight. I think it’s important in these close games to take all the points you can as you don’t often get too many chances so it’s usually a kick or drop goal that proves the difference.”

You mentioned those two previous games and Japan actually went into this clash having won the last five encounters between the two sides. Was that ever a factor mentally, and had you learned anything from those defeats to take into this match?

KM: “When it comes to the World Cup I think previous results go out the window. The side we had compared to the one that played those previous times in the Pacific Nations Cup was quite different. The Japanese team was practically the same so we knew what sort of game to expect from them. They were always going to play fast and try and move our big pack around the field.”

The Tongans are renowned for their big hits but it was the amount of tackles that you made in this game that was the difference, you really fronted up across the park for eighty minutes didn’t you?

KM: “Back in Tonga before the World Cup, we’d really been working hard on getting our levels of fitness up. I think during the tournament we were finishing stronger, which was a bit different to previous Tongan sides. Normally towards the end of the game we’d be trying to hold on.”

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GAME 4 – TONGA 19 FRANCE 14

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What a way to finish your tournament! Only the win over Australia back in 1973 comes anywhere near this incredible achievement in Tonga’s rugby history. Did you think you were a chance going into the game?

KM: “Before the game the boys were confident we could beat them for sure. Most of the guys from the squad either play in France, or have come up against them through other competitions, so we knew if we performed the score would take care of itself. It was just a great day for Tongan rugby. To see a small country like us go up against one of the powerhouses of world rugby and win was something special.”

It wasn’t a fortuitous victory either, you outplayed them in many facets of the game, mixing up powerful forward play with some swift counter attacks and plenty of trademark ferocity in the tackle. Was this the most complete Tongan performance in the tournament, and indeed for a while?

KM: “I think it was one of our better performances, definitely our best performance of the tournament. We left a few scoring opportunities out there which may have got us that bonus point. But to beat the French was something special regardless of how we performed. I think there’s plenty of improvement to come if we can keep the same group of players together.”

You also did things the hard way, losing your captain Finau Maka to injury and try-scorer Sukanaivalu Hufanga to the sin bin, both on the stroke of half-time. What was said at the break to try and maintain the upper hand?

KM: “We knew it was going to be difficult being one man down, but the French had been attacking our line just before half time and couldn’t get through. So I think that gave us a lot of confidence coming back out for the second half. The coaches just said to continue with how we were playing and keep the physicality up, which the French didn’t seem to enjoy.”

As you said, you were able to leave a few scoring opportunities out there as well and still win, including a few uncharacteristic missed kicks from yourself. Was that down to the pressure of the occasion, the elements, or had the trainers not passed you the right balls?!?

KM: “Kicking at Wellington is always difficult, Morne Steyn said it’s the hardest ground in the world to kick at. There’s never a consistent wind, which made things tough, and the body was a bit tired coming towards the end of the game. I think that being the only player to play eighty minutes in every game of the tournament was taking its toll.”

So, can we end the conspiracy theory once and for all – was there anything wrong with the match balls?

KM: “A lot of the kickers struggled at the World Cup, especially if you look at the stats compared to how everyone normally performs. I think if Jonny Wilkinson is kicking that badly, then maybe something’s not right. I did find that if you didn’t hit it exactly in the sweet spot then it did open up to go anywhere, you couldn’t be confident the ball would travel the same way every time.”

One of my favourite memories of the whole tournament was the whooping and hollering from the Tongan front-row when they packed down for the last scrum, knowing the game was won. What was going through your mind at the time?

KM: “It was a bit of mixed emotions. I was stoked we had won, which was a feat on its own, but at the same time I was a bit disappointed our tournament had come to an end. As I said earlier, for a small nation like Tonga to beat France did so much for the people back at home. I think they’re still playing the game every night now!”

Tonga celebrate v France_2011 RWC

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REFLECTIONS

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Looking back at the tournament as a whole, would you call it a success for Tonga?

KM: “I think to gain automatic qualification again for 2015 and to beat France made the tournament a success. Our goal was to get to the Quarter-Finals and that wasn’t to be, but I think Tongan rugby as a whole is headed in the right direction now because of our performances.”

Is the memory of the French win and the automatic qualification for 2015 reward enough, or are you forever going to be kicking yourselves about the Canada match?

KM: “I think everyone in our team will still be thinking about that Canadian game and the ‘what if’s’ but at the end of the day that’s rugby. Had we beaten Canada, maybe we wouldn’t have beaten the French, so who knows? Having that Canadian game in the back of my mind helps when I need a bit of motivation to keep going for the next Rugby World Cup. After having a taste of what it is all about I can’t wait for England 2015, it will definitely be something I’m aiming for.”

Tonga are now ranked 9th in the world according to the IRB, which is the country’s highest placing since ranking’s began. You must be proud to be a part of arguably your nation’s best ever side?

KM: “Yeah, it’s a big achievement for our country and I’m very proud to have been a part of it. We spoke about it as a team before we all went our own way after the tournament. We wanted to continue the progress we had made, so hopefully we can make it a more permanent ranking, if not improve it.”

What’s your take on the mistreatment of the lower ranked nations in terms of rest days between matches – do you agree that things need to change for England 2015?

KM: “I think things need to change. It makes it hard for the lower nations to compete when they’re being made to come up against Tier One nations on such short turnarounds. I think if anything it should be the other way round. To make things fair every team should get the same amount of rest time between matches regardless of the rankings.”

What has to happen in Tongan rugby to ensure that in four years time in England, you’re in a better position to try and make the Quarter-Finals?

KM: “I think the big thing is getting more matches against top level opposition. I don’t think Pacific rugby improves when the same teams are continually playing each other, if we were given Tier One matches then I think you might see more players being available for their country throughout the year, rather than turning out only for World Cups.”

Best match not involving Tonga?

KM: “All Blacks vs Australia.”

Six of the best players of the tournament (three from the Northern Hemisphere, three from the Southern Hemisphere)?

KM: “Jamie Roberts, Thierry Dusautoir and Sean O’Brien; Jerome Kaino, David Pocock and Cory Jane.”

Best emerging talent?

KM: “Israel Dagg.”

Best try?

KM: “González Amorosino – Argentina vs Scotland.”

Ones to watch in 2015 – players and/or teams?

KM: “Player – James O’Connor. Team – Wales. They were a bit hard done by at this World Cup and they’ve got a young squad.”

What did you think of the tournament experience as a whole and does New Zealand deserve another World Cup in the future?

KM: “I think the tournament as a whole was outstanding. I think the people of New Zealand really bought into it, which made the whole tournament a success. Having grown up in New Zealand, it’s fair to say I’d never seen the country so excited about an event, and I definitely think it deserves another Rugby World Cup.”

First published by Ruggamatrix on December 9th, 2011

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