With the November Tests now done and dusted for most teams, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next, Tonga.
The highlight of Tonga’s season was undoubtedly their 19-17 victory over Italy in Padova in November.
The Tongans finish the year 14th on the World Rankings, one place lower than when the season started, their win over Italy not enough to move them above the Azzurri.
The win came a week after the Italians had delivered another shock to South Africa by beating the Springboks 20-18 in Florence for the first time ever.
Italy are in a rebuilding phase, but that should not detract from Tonga’s impressive victory, thanks to an 80th minute penalty from Sonatane Takulua.
Takulua was in fine form during 2016 and again at the heart of Tonga’s 20-17 win over John Mitchell’s USA despite playing 10 minutes with only 14 men. A 28-13 triumph over Spain was expected, but winning all three of their matches marked a moment of history for the side.
“Things were heading the right direction and I stressed to the boys that there’s a slice of history – a Tongan team has never been undefeated in a November test window so if we won that game we would be the first,” Kefu told Radio New Zealand.
“Fortunately we played well, our set piece was great, things went our way and we won.”
Kefu, who was assisted by former Leinster boss Matt O’Connor this month, added that the upset over Italy could be a springboard for greater things.
“It gives us that belief and that confidence moving forward and I stressed that to the group afterwards,” he said.
“I said this is nothing, this is the tip of the iceberg – we’ve only just begun to discover ourselves and what we can do.
“We’ve still got some very good players to come into this squad and our issue is time together. When we are together we can’t waste that and that’s going to just keep building, we’re going to get better and better every year.
“We had a really good group and the boys really had that belief and you can see it in the way they played.”
Those comments regarding Tonga’s lack of time together make you wonder just how good this group could be if they had more minutes together on the field.
Combining strike runners like Telusa Veainu and Fetu’u Vainikolo with Takulua’s game management and the ability upfront of Steve Mafi and Ben Tameifuna proves Tonga aren’t short on talent. Next year’s June Tests and Pacific Nations Cup will be an interesting test.