The Tonga 7s side were over in Auckland for the Oceania 7s Olympic Qualifier tournament, so I jumped at the opportunity to interview Andrew Katoa their coach. We talked about the goals and challenges for the Islanders.
When I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing the Tonga 7s coach the response was that they are a good team. I probably should have done my research before asking for the interview as I was surprised to see that Tonga are not on the HSBC Sevens World Series.
I kicked us off talking about the Olympics and Tonga’s chances of making it. It quickly became clear that making the Olympics would be great but it was not the main target. The Olympics is a wonderful event but it is a one-off event. The primary target is to get back into the HSBC Sevens World Series and competing on a regular basis.
Tonga dropped out of the World Series due to series of structural changes at both the administrative and coaching level before Andy’s time. Now he has a 1 year plan to get Tonga back up to that level. In Tonga, like a lot of the world, sevens is seen as rugby just with less players on the pitch and with the national team not in the World Series, playing for your local club side is more prestigious. A few months back I had a chat with Willie Los’e who made it clear that 7s is a specialised game giving the example of how Fiji had beaten NZ 44-0 by mastering the restart in a way no other team were capable of.
The one year plan is to take the athletes that Tonga undoubtedly have and turn them into 7s players not just rugby players. With the ability to read the game and manufacture points rather than relying purely on their individual ability. The challenges that Andy face are primarily on three fronts:
- The rugby culture in Tonga
- The lack of a 7s domestic structure
Life as a rugby player in Tonga is light years away from what I expected and anything that I have heard of. Where ever I have been you play one style of rugby with maybe a switch during the year. In Tonga the players can go from a training session on 7s to playing a rugby league game, to a touch tournament and some 15s or football thrown in as well in a week. From the romantic point of view, it’s great that they are playing for the love the game. However if you are trying to create a world competitive specialised team, this is chaos.
I was amazed to hear that there is no domestic 7s structure in Tonga, so these wonderful rugby athletes are learning their trade on the world stage. When you think that they are looking to compete with somewhere like New Zealand, that has a whole 7s season with it played through all the grades. It’s chalk and cheese to Tonga where there is no 7s played in schools for example.
At the Rugby World Cup, World Rugby talked a lot about the funding of the Tier 2 nations. So it was interesting to hear that Tonga 7s isn’t considered part of the high performance program and so does not receive World Rugby funding. Also the Tonga government doesn’t provide funding. This leaves it up to the Tonga union who do their best but you have to remember that Tonga has not hosted an international rugby game since 2009. The primary source of income for most unions are home internationals. The antiquated rules mean that the host nation keeps the income, on the assumption that there will be a return visit. So clearly there is only so much the Tonga union can afford to spend on the 7s program.
With this back ground it is amazing how much Tonga has managed to achieve in 7s over the years purely off the back of their latent talent. Now that many other countries have gone full-time with their 7s programs, the standard has improved. This means that the Tonga players having to learn how to behave like professional athletes whist remaining amateur. Things like discipline in training and rest, knowing about nutrition and hydration and it’s impact on performance have to become a way of life for them.
What’s in it for the players though? The part I missed out above about life as a player in Tonga, is that not only are you training and playing several different types of sport but also you need to help on the family farm or business. So it’s not the promise of fortune or fame, as I said above club rugby is currently more prestigious in Tonga. At the moment it’s the opportunity to test themselves against the best in the world and with that will come prestige.
The one year plan is not an easy task and it has not always run smoothly. Andy showed me a list of 70 players that have been through his program already including players from Japan, New Zealand for example, as well as Tonga. The 7s World Series qualifying tournament earlier this year in Hong Kong didn’t go well. Andy lost his captain due to discipline issues and other players have had to be left out for this reason too. But he arrived at the Oceania 7s Olympic Qualifying tournament with the most athletic set of players he has had. He can now see the light at the end of tunnel and how they are going to get there. 4 days later at the tournament we caught up again and he said that he felt they were going to beat Samoa who are in the World Series. A couple of hours later that is exactly what happened as they out hustled their higher ranked opponents in the semi final. I couldn’t stay for the final where they lost to Australia but it does appear they are heading in the right direction.
The ladies have also come on board in the last 2 months and are showing great potential but let’s be honest they are going to need more time than that.
I asked him if there was one thing that I could help him with what would it be? The answer was sponsorship, unfortunately I’m not in a position to help with that. If you are and want to get in early with a team that is going places here is a great opportunity.