Tonga stand in the way of Hong Kong and a Rugby World Cup debut as the teams prepare to compete for a ticket to France at Sunshine Coast Stadium on Saturday.
Hong Kong secured their place in the Rugby World Cup 2023 Asia/Pacific 1 play-off with a 23-21 defeat of Korea in Incheon on 9 July.
The winner of the one-off match in Queensland will become the 19th team to secure their place at RWC 2023, joining Webb Ellis Cup holders South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania in Pool B.
Whoever loses on Saturday will have one remaining opportunity to claim a spot in France when they compete in the Final Qualification Tournament against Portugal, Kenya and the USA in November.
𝐀𝐬𝐢𝐚/𝐏𝐚𝐜𝐢𝐟𝐢𝐜 𝟏@officialTongaRU will face @HongKongRugby in the Asia/Pacific 1 play-off in Queensland (23 Jul, KO 17:30 local)— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) July 19, 2022
The winner qualifies into Pool B and the runner-up takes their place at the Final Qualification Tournament#RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/egTzJeDWN1
For now, though, both teams will be focused on securing victory at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Tonga warmed up for the play-off against Hong Kong by taking part in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2022 in Fiji.
However, with coach Toutai Kefu using the tournament to test his squad depth, ‘Ikale Tahi lost all three of their matches against the hosts, Samoa and Australia A.
Only Anzelo Tuitavuki, William Havili and Afusipa Taumoepeau started all three Pacific Nations Cup fixtures as Kefu used 28 players across his three starting line-ups.
Recent high-profile recruits, Malakai Fekitoa, Charles Piutau and Israel Folau only appeared in Tonga’s opening match, a 36-0 defeat to Fiji.
Following the loss to their Pacific Island rivals, Kefu insisted that the Asia/Pacific 1 play-off was “where we want to start playing well”.
Their winless Pacific Nations Cup campaign, though, means that Tonga have not won a match since their qualifying victory against the Cook Islands 12 months ago. They will play Hong Kong on a run of six test defeats in a row.
Tonga, however, have a proud Rugby World Cup record, having qualified for every tournament bar RWC 1991.
At RWC 2019 in Japan, ‘Ikale Tahi were drawn in Pool C, beating the USA but losing to Argentina, France and eventual finalists England.
If they are to make it to a ninth edition of the showpiece tournament, they will need to get past a Hong Kong team intent on creating history.
Hong Kong had not played a test since November 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic until their narrow defeat of Korea, which was secured with a last-minute penalty from Gregor McNeish.
Coach Lewis Evans knows his side will have to be at their best to get past Tonga on Saturday but is confident they have the ability to do just that.
“We know how good Tonga can be and they’ve got unbelievable personnel available to them,” he told the South China Morning Post.
“They have obviously lost their last three games, but they’ve also had three unbelievable games to prepare for us.
“We know the threat that’s coming there, we know the physicality, we know the speed of ball they play. We’ve all seen footage now, and we just have to be on our game to be competitive with them.”
The Asia/Pacific 1 play-off will be shown live on Stan Sport in Australia, Sky Sport in New Zealand and via Digicel in the Pacific Islands.
Fans from all other territories can stream the action with Cluch. The match will kick-off at 17:30 local time (GMT+10).