The USA has played Tonga four times in the professional era, beating the ‘Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) in 1999, and losing in 2000, 2007, and 2011.
Those first two games are so long ago as to have little relation to how the two teams compare today, but the other two are close enough. In the 2007 World Cup, Tonga focused well on slowing ball down out of the breakdown, and playing patient defense. As a result, the Eagles had plenty of possession, and several line breaks, but all kinds of problems scoring tries.
Tonga won 25-15.
In 2011, the Eagles had plenty of possession, but gave it away, knocking on, losing the ball in contact, and then collapsing somewhat at the end. In that game, won 44-13 by Tonga, the Americans were simply worn out before they hit the pitch, having undergone a very intense preparation for the Churchill Cup match.
Mindful of having his team physically ready for a physical game, current USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin has pulled back somewhat on the training time and contact the past week. What he has done is work the players hard in getting into the right position to make tackles – because they will be making tackles, they’ll have to.
Tolkin told RUGBYMag.com that his players are enthusiastic about the game, and preparing for it. Despite spending their time in the relatively slow town of Colwyn Bay, they have enjoyed their time together, not griped (much) about the lack of a Starbucks, amusements, or a good internet connection. (Note, if you have been expecting more tweets, Facebook posts, and emails from players, their internet connection is woefully slow.)
“I like to keep my finger on the pulse of the team, and there’s a good buzz at dinner, a really good attitude,” said Tolkin.
All that has translated into hard work, which is good because Tolkin will want to see an even better effort from his forwards on Saturday.
“The physicality will ramp up,” said the coach. “Russia was a big, physical side, but I think against Tonga we’ve got big, physical guys who are perhaps more athletic. They add another dimension with their agility. We have to make our tackles, and we will have to be strong at the breakdown.”
Looking back at the last two clashes between the USA and Tonga, the USA had their obvious failings – the inability to secure quick ball and run good support lines to finish off tries, and the inability to keep possession and prevent quick turnaround scores by the ‘Ikale Tahi. Tolkin, having made sure the team is ready for action and not overworked, hopes he has the right formula to fix those areas.