Wales' growth under the guidance of Warren Gatland will face another tough assignment when they take on Tonga in Cardiff on Friday.
Wales' growth under the guidance of coach Warren Gatland faces another tough assignment when they host Tonga in Cardiff on Friday.
The Six Nations champions have shown in their previous matches during the November Tests that they are still a force to be reckoned with on the international scene after they went on a seven-match losing streak in 2012.
Gatland has rested most of his first-choice players – ahead of next weekend's Test against the Wallabies – but he knows his new-look side will have to front up against the Tongans who enjoy the physical aspect of the game.
“Tonga are a typical south sea island side and will be physical, powerful and won't take a backwards step,” Gatland said.
“We pride ourselves on matching other side's physicality and we will have to do that on Friday.
“It should be a great encounter with both sides looking to move the ball around.
“We have made a number of changes but it's a great opportunity for these guys to show us exactly how they cope with the international game.
“The whole squad has trained well since the start of the campaign and they deserve their chance.”
The game is a momentous occasion for Gatland, who will take charge of his 100th Test. Gatland has been Wales' boss in 59 of those internationals with his other Tests being in charge of Ireland from 1998 to 2001 and the British and Irish Lions earlier this year.
Wales' captain for this Test, back-row Ryan Jones – one of the few players who was in Wales' side when Gatland started his reign in 2007 – said the New Zealander had transformed Welsh rugby since during his tenure.
“His record speaks for itself,” said Jones.
“The difference in the environment, the difference in the results – we've changed beyond all recognition from before.
“Warren has done that and he's been incredibly successful. We are judged on results in professional sport and under Warren we have won trophies. It's been a great few years.”
Amongst the changes to Wales' run-on side is the recall of Ospreys inside centre Ashley Beck, who lines up in midfield alongside Owen Williams of the Cardiff Blues.
Beck expects Tonga to provide tough opposition and said Wales will not be underestimating the Sea Eagles.
“Like any of the island teams, they hit hard, they do like to throw the ball about, have good steppers and have a go and they do tend to give a lot of penalties away as well,” he said.
“We have got to keep playing and not try and change our pattern too much.
“They had a good win against France in the last World Cup so you can't underestimate a team like that. Teams do tend to write them off, but we as a squad won't be doing that.
“This is a potential banana skin if we look a week ahead (to Australia). There are a lot of boys here who haven't played much rugby in the last few weeks. It is a good opportunity to go out and stake a claim.”
Tonga's European tour got off to a poor start when they suffered a 19-18 loss to Romania in Bucharest on November 9 and they also lost 38-18 to France in Le Harve last weekend.
The clash against les Bleus was an ill-tempered affair and they finished the match with 14 men after talismanic prop Sona Taumalolo was sent off for punching France lock Yoann Maestri.
But despite those results, Tonga are a team who have delivered some upsets in recent seasons. They claimed a memorable 19-14 win over France in Wellington, at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and their 21-15 victory against Scotland in Aberdeen last year was the final nail in the coffin of Andy Robinson, who resigned as the Scots' coach shortly afterwards.
Their captain Nili Latu Langilangi said they were determined to finish their tour on a high this weekend.
“Looking at France and Romania, both were defeats but games we felt we could have won,” he said.
“The hardest thing is we only come together for November and the Pacific Nations Cup and usually only have a week to prepare.
“We play all around the world and everyone has to travel in sometimes just a couple of days before a game.
“That gives us something that drives us to win Test matches.
“Having those two games under our belts this month just gives us more confidence going into this game and we have to be.
“We usually hit our straps in our last Test match of a series because it takes us that time to gel.
“We had the upper hand against Romania and France but little things didn't go our way, like giving away stupid penalties.
“But we've been working really hard to target this game against Wales.”
Despite taking on an under-strength Wales side Latu said they know they face a tough task.
“Wales are Six Nations champions and a very classy outfit,” he said.
“They are resting most of their boys for Australia and want to bring new guys in.
“Any player that takes the field will give 100 per cent, but at the same time there's an opportunity there for us as well.
“It's their call but we want to win this game and whatever the result, it's the best team that wins.”
Players to watch:
For Wales: Wales supporters will keep a close eye on Dragons speedster Hallam Amos who is making his Test debut. The 19-year-old has impressed for his region – who he has represented at senior level since he was 17 – and his country at U20 level and gets his chance to replicate that form at senior level.
For Tonga: Outside centre Siale Piutaua is dangerous on attack and will keep Wales' defenders busy if he gets the ball in space. Piutau is also creative with ball in hand and if he finds his own way to the try-line blocked don't be surprised if he sets up one of his team-mates for try-scoring opportunities.
Head-to-head: Tonga's captain Nili Latu Langilangi knows the short cuts on a rugby field and his duel at the breakdown with Wales tearaway Justin Tipuric will have a huge bearing on the game's result. Tipuric has been Wales' second-choice openside flanker, behind regular skipper Sam Warburton, but seldom plays a poor game for his country and also represented the British and Irish Lions in a Test during their recent series victory over Australia. Langilangiis a shrewd operator whose experience will prove vital in the battle on the ground.
2003: Wales won 27-20, Canberra (World Cup pool match)
2001: Wales won 51-7, Cardiff
1997: Wales won 46-12, Swansea
1994: Wales won 18-9, Nuku A'lofa
1987: Wales won 29-16, Palmerston North (World Cup pool match)
1986: Wales won 15-7, Nuku A'lofa
Prediction: Although Wales are fielding an inexperienced side they should be victorious. Tonga, will not be pushovers, however, but Wales will win by 10 points!
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Owen Williams, 12 Ashley Beck, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 James Hook, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Ryan Jones (c), 7 Justin Tipuric, 6