Laid-back Kefu credited for Tonga’s rapid improvement

Former New Zealand centre Pita Alatini reckons he knows a good coach when he sees one - and in Tonga’s Toutai Kefu he definitely thinks he has.

The Pacific Islanders have lost to England, Argentina and France at Rugby World Cup 2019 and need to beat the United States in Hanazono on Sunday to avoid finishing bottom of Pool C.

Coach Kefu, pictured above, a World Cup winner with Australia in 1999, had stated that a pass mark would be coming third and, with it, guaranteeing a place at RWC 2023 in France, but Alatini, one of his assistants in Japan, has still been mightily impressed.

"I have a huge amount of respect for Toutai," he said. "He’s laid-back and that can be misinterpreted by some. The unseen work that he does has been huge for the team - he’s really good with the boys.

"Your goal as a coach is to make players better and, having seen him, my personal opinion is that there will be opportunities for him. He’s good enough to be offered bigger roles elsewhere."

At 45, Kefu is the youngest of all 20 coaches at the tournament, but none of the other 19 has the playing record that he does. Aside from the World Cup triumph, the number eight earned 60 caps for the Wallabies, helped them to a first series win against the British and Irish Lions in 2001 and was on five Bledisloe Cup-winning sides against the All Blacks.

Most memorable of those was also in 2001. He scored the last-minute try for a 29-26 victory in Sydney - against a New Zealand side whose two tries included one by Alatini.

Their connection goes far deeper than that, however. Both were born in Tonga and their fathers were in the 1973 side that famously beat Australia in Brisbane, the city where Kefu - born the year after that win - grew up.

Alatini expects Kefu to take some time to decide what the future holds after the World Cup, but although he predicts "exciting times for Tongan rugby" he also said: "A lot of persuasion would be needed for him to stay on."

Tonga name their team to play the USA on Friday but are without hooker Sosefo Sakalia, who injured a medial collateral ligament in his knee after coming on as a replacement in the 23-21 defeat by France last Sunday.