Israel Folau included in Tonga team as international exile comes to an end

Israel Folau is set to resume his trial rugby union career after being named in Tonga’s squad for this summer’s Pacific Cup of Nations.

Toutai Kefu, the Tonga head coach, also took advantage of World Rugby’s change in eligibility rules by selecting Charles Piutau with Malakai Fekitoa also selected.

Each of these three highly successful backs previously represented other nations. Before being sacked by Rugby Australia, Folau, who posted online that “hell awaits” homosexuals, won 73 games for the Wallabies between 2013 and 2018, scoring 185 points. After a spell back in rugby league, the 33-year-old currently works for Japanese club Shining Arcs.

The Bristol Bears’ Piutau was capped 17 times by the All Blacks between 2013 and 2015. Fekitoa, who will swap Wasps for Munster at the end of the current campaign, made 24 caps for New Zealand between 2014 and 2017.

Last November, World Rugby announced that from 1 January this year, players would be able to change their nation after a three-year ban period, provided they had a credible ancestral link to another country or were born there.

Folau and Piutau qualify for Tonga through these criteria, while Fekitoa played for the national Sevens team to qualify. Together, they considerably strengthen the Kefu squad ahead of Pacific Nations Cup matches against Australia A, Samoa and Fiji in Suva and Lautoka between July 2-16. Wayne Barnes will be among the tournament officials.

Tonga can book their place at the 2023 World Cup, in a group alongside South Africa, Ireland, Scotland and Romania, if they win a playoff against one of Hong Kong, Malaysia or South Korea later this year. If they did, Kefu is confident of attracting more high-profile players.

Adam Coleman, the London Irish lock who last represented Australia in their World Cup quarter-final loss to England in 2019, is a name in their sights.

“The rule change transforms the Tongan side,” Kefu, himself a former Wallabies rower, said earlier this week in an interview with rugby.com.au.

“I reached out to Adam out of the blue a year ago and took it a step further by sitting down with him in London about five weeks ago.

“He is very keen to represent the Tongan side of his heritage and experience a World Cup again. It’s a connection that he feels a lot about.”

“If we do qualify for the World Cup, we hope to organize a tour in November when players like Adam are available to play against tier one test countries to really advance our preparation for France.”


Analysis: Tonga strikes first, but emerging nations around the world must be supported

The Pacific Nations were always going to benefit most immediately from World Rugby eligibility changes.

Tonga has struck first, bringing in Israel Folau and Charles Piutau. They could still renew more. Adam Coleman is apparently interested. George Moala, a bristling former All Blacks centre-back, could join a fearsome back line that will include Malakai Fekitoa. No wonder Toutai Kefu, Tonga’s head coach, is excited.

Another intriguing subplot of the upcoming Pacific Nations Cup will be whether Fiji will look stronger because of the cohesion developed by players who have been with Drua, their free-running Super Rugby team.

High-profile names have understandably dominated the headlines, but Tonga have also picked up a healthy contingent from Moana Pasifika, a new Super Rugby franchise.

That is encouraging and seemingly more sustainable, but it is vital that emerging nations around the world continue to receive support. Georgia and Uruguay, for example, will benefit very little from players being able to switch nations.

Earlier this year, Romania’s head coach Andy Robinson emphasized that rugby union needs to have a more competitive World Cup in 20 years. Those comments came in response to a question about whether Georgia should be allowed to compete for promotion to the Six Nations.

Robinson is of the opinion that there should be a relegation playoff, even if the winner of the Rugby Europe Championship, effectively the Six Nations second division, loses to the top-tier wooden spoons every year for a decade. That would be a tangible way to encourage the ambition of emerging nations.

Tonga’s injection of quality will be registered with South Africa, Scotland, Ireland and Romania, their possible opponents in the group at the 2023 World Cup. It should also make the tournament more attractive, as was the case with the showpiece of rugby league in 2017 when Tonga and Fiji reached the semi-finals.

However, the unintended consequences of the rule change – perhaps contractual incentives for young players to serve the three-year ban period – need to be monitored, because international eligibility is already a particularly worm-ridden can.

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