Tonga name six debutants to face Cook Islands

Tonga have named six debutants in their matchday squad to play the Cook Islands in Saturday's Rugby World Cup Asia/Pacific Qualifier.

Bay of Plenty wider training squad member Semisi Paea starts at lock while former Tonga Under 20s player Kelemete Finau will debut on the blindside flank.

Grammar TEC back-rower Nela Matakaiongo, former New Zealand Under 20s number eight Tovo Faleafa, Waikato Development centre Paula Mahe and Tonga Sevens co-captain John Tapueluelu are also poised to get their first taste of test match rugby off the bench.

The 'Ikale Tahi have struggled to make up the numbers for this weekends do-or-die test in Pukekohe, South of Auckland, with a host of players unavailable because of injury, bereavement, work and club commitments.

Matakaiongo only joined the squad mid-week after plans to bring Don Lolo back from his day job as a builder fell through.

That means Chiefs flanker Viliami Taulani will partner Paea in the second row, while Tonga Sevens international Walter Fifita and former New Zealand Sevens player Sam Vaka will also earn their first tests starts in the backline.

Only nine players from the matchday 23 that faced Manu Samoa last weekend will back up against the Cook Islands, while winger Penikolo Latu is a non-playing


Former Wellington flanker Mateaki Kafatolu retains the number seven jersey, while Sione Tu'ipolotu shifts from the blindside flank to number eight.

Captain Sonatane Takulua and first five James Faiva will offer vital experience in the halves, while Fine Insi keeps his place at centre, with Nikolai Foliaki moving from the midfield to fullback.

The 'Ikale Tahi will be able to call on some experienced heads off the bench, with 30-test prop Sila Puafisi and former Crusaders halfback Leon Fukofuka likely to feature prominently in the second half.

The winner of Saturday's one-off clash will advance to the Asia/Pacific playoff against Hong Kong, Korea or Malaysia for a place at the 2023 World Cup in France.

The loser of that tie will be involved in the final qualification tournament featuring teams from Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Tonga squad:

*denotes test debut

1. Duke Nginingini, 2. Sam Moli, 3. Ben Tameifuna, 4. Semisi Paea*, 5. Viliami Taulani, 6.Kelemete Finau*, 7. Mateaki Kafatolu, 8. Sione Tu'ipolotu, 9. Sonatane Takulua (c), 10. James Faiva, 11. Walter Fifita, 12. Sam Vaka 13. Fine Inisi, 14. Nafi Tu'itavake, 15. Nikolai Foliaki. Reserves: 16. Jay Fonokalafi, 17. Jethro Felemi, 18. Sila Puafisi, 19. Nela Matakaiongo*, 20. Tovo Faleafa*, 21. Leon Fukofuka, 22. Paula Mahe*, John Tapueluelu*.