Inseparable cousins go head-to-head for Australia hooker spot

Folau Fainga'a and Tolu Latu defied family warnings and are now rivals for the Wallabies' No.2 jersey.

ODAWARA, 17 Sep - Folau Fainga'a is relieved he and cousin Tolu Latu ignored their mothers' repeated pleas not to hang out together - the pair now form a critical part of Australia's increasingly tight front-row union.

Both hookers of Tongan descent, the pair have powered their way to the forefront of head coach Michael Cheika's plans, with Latu playing 11 of Australia's 18 tests since the start of 2018 and Fainga'a grabbing 11 caps during the past 13 months.

The younger man by about two years, Fainga'a, pictured above meeting the locals in Japan, said that not many close relatives would have predicted such a rise for the tearaway twosome.

"We always get told not to be with each other because we always get up to no good," said Fainga'a, who grew up close to Latu in western Sydney. "We were just getting in trouble, never listening, always doing stuff we were not meant to be doing."

But their hard-running, uncompromising style - allied to an obvious love for life - has the cousins closer together than ever.

Latu, who made his debut against Wales in November 2016, was the first to claim the national No.2 jersey. But Fainga'a has since laid down a strong challenge, claiming 12 tries during the 2019 Super Rugby season to equal South Africa hooker Malcolm Marx's scoring record for a forward. 

Fainga'a is unfazed by the thought that just one of them can start as Australia's first-choice hooker in their opening game against Fiji on Saturday in the Sapporo Dome. 

"For us, it is just pushing each other to be better every week - week in, week out. Starting, not starting, being on the bench – whoever has got that jersey on it’s 'do your best for the team'," he said.

"Team comes first. At training, everyone competes for their position. There is no real ‘if I see you, I am going to smash you’. It’s just keeping the team ready for the weekend and keeping each other accountable and pushing each other to be better."

Not that it has all been straightforward for the pair and their families this year with a series of on and off-the-field incidents putting a shadow over Latu's Rugby World Cup 2019 place.

First, the 26-year-old was suspended for six weeks after pleading guilty to a dangerous charge into a ruck during a Super Rugby game between his Waratahs side and the Sunwolves in February.

Three months later, he was sent home from a Wallabies training camp when news broke of a drink-driving charge. 

"I always reach out to him every time I am down in Canberra (where Latu is based), just to see how things are with him and how he is doing," Fainga'a said. "I am obviously very proud of how he is coping with everything and brushed everything (off) and just put his head down and worked hard to get himself to the place he is now."

Whoever makes it on to the pitch on Saturday, Fainga'a confirmed their families will be at home watching the action together. 

RNS ln/sg/dk/ajr