INDIAN SUMMER: Veteran Tonga hooker Aleki Lutui in action for Gloucester against Leicester Tigers last year
WORCESTER, 15 Sept - Aleki Lutui, Tonga’s most-capped hooker, admits his call-up for a third World Cup finals came as a surprise at the ripe old age of 37 but he says he will do his utmost to help guide a youthful team which boasts the next generation of Tongan rugby talent.
Lutui's selection was unexpected because the 43-cap front-rower had made plans to step down the divisions following a summer move from England's Aviva Premiership to the third-tier National One, where he hopes to coach as well as play for Bedfordshire-based Ampthill RFC.
The move will have to be postponed, however, as preparations continue for Tonga’s opening World Cup fixture against Georgia on Saturday at Kingsholm, of all places, where he thought he had seen out his professional career last season with Gloucester, the European Challenge Cup champions.
“It comes down to my age,” Lutui said. “At the end of your career, you want to do something a little bit different.
“I’ve been playing in the Premiership for a long time, so having the opportunity to do something else - maybe a little bit of coaching - is something I wanted to do after rugby.
“I was quite surprised to be called up again. I played for the team at Kingsholm against USA in November and I was quite surprised when the coach picked me to come and play for the team again.”
Having played for Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand, the veteran hooker has been involved at the highest level of rugby for more than a decade, moving to Worcester Warriors in 2006 before stints at Edinburgh and Gloucester.
Lutui made his international debut against Georgia in March 1999, in a 28-27 defeat in that year's Rugby World Cup qualifiers. Ahead of Tonga’s latest clash with Georgia, he returned to the training pitches in Worcester on Tuesday - another old hunting ground - for a one-off session between his national side and the Warriors first team.
“For me, that is the big achievement: to keep coming back for Tonga,” Lutui added. “Hopefully, my experience will spread to the boys because most of them here are quite young. Hopefully, I can guide them during the World Cup.
“Georgia are a physical team who have improved a lot over the last couple of years, so we expect it to be a physical game. We will have to be physical also as that is what they will bring.”