Rugby-Tonga hoping for better luck at World Cup

By Julian Linden Sept 5 (Reuters) - Inconsistency and ill-discipline have always been among the biggest obstacles facing Tongan teams at the Rugby World Cup. Blessed with an abundance of talented players who can score tries from anywhere and pull off bone-jarring tackles, the Ikale Tahi are a team feared and respected by all their opponents. Yet, for all their natural ability and fierce determination to succeed, the Pacific Islanders are usually outshone by Fiji and Samoa at the World Cup and have never made it past the pool stage, often because of their fickle unpredictability. Four years ago in New Zealand, they beat the eventual runners-up France in the pool stage, but failed to progress after losing to Canada. Tonga also share an unwanted record, with Canada, for the most players sent off at World Cups, with three each, but not all their problems have been their own making. Like their Pacific Island neighbours, Tonga lose many of their best players to other countries. With Tonga unable to come close to providing the salaries on offer by the richest clubs in Europe, many players go overseas and either switch nationalities or are prevented by their paymasters from playing for their country of birth. "The fact that we're going to the World Cup and some of our best players are not part of it is quite sad," Tonga Rugby president Epi Taione said recently. "It's not really a reflection on what the World Cup should be." Perhaps even worse, smaller teams like Tonga have often been given bad draws. At the 2003 World Cup, Tonga had to play four pool matches in just 14 days, much less than the top-tier nations, prompting then coach Jim Love to say they were being treated like "second-class citizens". That issue has finally been addressed for the current tournament, where the lesser lights now have roughly the same rest periods as the top nations. Drawn alongside New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia and Namibia in Pool C, Tonga will again have their work cut out getting out of the group stage, with their clash with Argentina looming as the decisive match. Tonga's recent form has been mixed. They finished third at this year's Pacific Nations Cup but will have most of the European-based stars available for the World Cup, including David Halaifonua, Sione Kalamafoni, Aleki Lutui and Paula Ngauomo. They arrived in England early an impressed in a warm-up match against second tier club side Nottingham, romping to a 69-14 victory that impressed head coach Mana Otai. "This was a game that we wanted to take the opportunity to put into practice what we have trained in from our camp onwards, and I think it served its purpose," he said. "It's been a good improvement on from the Pacific Nations Cup." (Editing by Mitch Phillips)