Tuesday, 3 April 2018

The increasing influence of Tongans in Japan

Japan and Tongan rugby has been linked together for around 40 years. The origin story began in 1976 when Toshio Nakano, a visiting teacher from Daito Bunka University and also manager of its rugby team, introduced Japanese abacus (soroban) skills to King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. Apparently the late King was impressed and a friendship formed which led to Tongans going to study the abacus with Nakano on rugby scholarships.

In the mid 1980's three of the players who were amongst the earliest students to go and study at Daito Bunka University (Nofomuli Taumoefolau, Hopoi Taione, and Sinali Latu) became the first Tongans to play for Japan. Taumoefolau and Latu (both of whom also represented Tonga) went onto play in the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and were also part of the Japan team that recorded a first ever win over Tier 1 opposition against Scotland in 1989. All three of those players still live in Japan today and Latu's son has just this week signed for the leading Top League team the Panasonic Wild Knights.

GIF: Japan's first player from Tonga Nofomuli Taumoefolau scores vs USA at RWC 1987
A handful more would follow their path into the Japan team in the ensuing years. In the 1990's there was Sione Latu and Lopeti Oto. In the early to mid 2000's Luatangi Vatuvei and Touriki Mau. All of whom went from Tonga to Daito Bunka University. Various others of course did not reach national team level but went onto have Top League careers.

Eventually the contacts grew and Tongans spread across the country to various different Universities, with some also starting to move to Japan much younger whilst still only aged around only 15 or 16.

The first of these to represent Japan (Christian Loamanu, Katoni Otukolo, and Ryu Koliniasi Holani) were all players who moved to Shochi Fukaya High School and then onto Saitama Institute of Technology (which is also now where Taumoefolau now coaches). Loamanu became the first ever 18 year old to play for the Brave Blossoms in 2005, whilst Holani (also the nephew of Taumoefolau) made his debut three years later going onto win 44 caps and remains the most capped Tongan to play for Japan.

Tongans have been present in Japanese rugby for more than 30 years. Reportedly now after such a length of time there is now a wider network of contacts and support making it easier for the students. Most are very well integrated and far more fluent in the language compared to a lot of the New Zealand born players in Japan. Quite a few of the past players to have come from Tonga to Japan have married and settled there after their playing career has finished.

However over the last 2 or 3 years there has been a very noticeable new surge of Tongan talent coming through the ranks. In total 21 players have moved from Tonga to High School or University in Japan and gone on to represent the Brave Blossoms since Taumoefolau was the first 33 years ago in 1985. Of those 21 players, 10 have featured over just the past two years since the last World Cup, with 8 of them making their debut in either 2016 or 2017.

GIF: Amanaki Mafi and Amanaki Lotoahea combine to create a try vs Wales in November 2016 
Presently only one of those Tongans is an established first choice starter. Amanaki Mafi, who burst onto the scene in late 2014 and since become widely regarded as one of the leading players in Super Rugby for the Melbourne Rebels. However there will almost surely be more by the time of the 2023 World Cup.

In March watching Junior Japan score notable wins over Tonga A and Samoa A in the Pacific Challenge, three of their most influential players were all Tongan. Faulua Makisi and Tevita Tatafu in the back row along with big hitting young centre Saia Fifita. Makisi and Tatafu have both now won places in Japan's National Development squad suggesting they could be on the near term selection radar of Jamie Joseph, whilst Fifita is likely to feature at this year's Junior World Cup (following on from the last Tongan back to do so Ataata Moeakiola, who in 2016 scored a hat trick against South Africa and was nominated for player of the tournament).
Image result for Asipeli Moala
Asipeli Moala scored a hat trick in
Japan U19s recent win over Ireland 

Whilst Japan U19 later in the month recorded a noteworthy win over Ireland with four Tongans in their starting lineup. One of which was the number 8 Asipeli Moala (from the same High School as both Makisi and Fifita) who scored a hat trick and named man of the match.

Meanwhile another Tongan Hosea Saumaki, also a past student at Daito Bunka University, has been in monstrous early season form on the wing for the Sunwolves in Super Rugby. Although he has already played for Tonga at 7s, Saumaki is thought to be considering switching to Japan through playing for them in the Olympic qualifiers at some point next year (he was in fact already named in the Japan squad for the June tests in 2016 with them possibly unaware of him having played 7s for Tonga).

Video: Hosea Saumaki's superb performance for the Sunwolves vs Lions in Johannesburg

At almost all levels of Japanese rugby right now there is a Tongan who is one of the best players in the team. What is obvious watching these Tongans is they are clearly not chosen by random. These are outstanding talents that High Schools or Universities in Japan must be scouting, in virtually every case from either Tonga College or Tupou College in Nuku'alofa.

Not only does there seem to be a larger amount of Tongans moving to Japan, but increasingly more coming over to High Schools at a very young age too, plus of a higher standard than those before as well. There were no Tongans in Japan's U19 team 5 or 6 years ago and there was only Holani in the senior team. It is unclear whether this increase is just down to University sides scouting more Tongans or if this is a more national team orientated project player type scheme from higher up at the JRFU.

No doubt some of these players have the potential to be major players for Japan in the future. However seeing Tatafu in particular, along with Makisi and Fifita, basically carry Junior Japan to victory over Tonga A in the Pacific Challenge it does raise the question. How do Tongans feel about this?

GIF: Saia Fifita and Tevita Tatafu smash past Tonga A defenders en route to a try
Whilst Tongans who move to Japan do not seem to be prevented from playing for the Ikale Tahi. In past years we have seen Emosi Kauhenga and Lotu Filipine (both Daito Bunka University) play at the 2007 World Cup for Tonga, and last November Sione Vailanu (Asahi University) and Shinnosuke Tu'umoto'oa (Daito Bunka University) both made their debut (although in general Tongan selectors over the years seem slow to pick players based in Japan). When the option arises, as we saw with Mafi in 2014, and may be about to see with Saumaki in the future, players have tended to opt for Japan. Tonga are certainly losing some highly impressive young talent to Japan right now.

Full list of players to have moved from Tonga and gone on to represent Japan
Nofomuli Taumoefolau
Daito Bunka University
Hopoi Taione
Daito Bunka University
Sinali Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Sione Latu
Number 8
Daito Bunka University
Lopeti Oto
Daito Bunka University
Luatangi Vatuvei
Daito Bunka University
Touriki Mau
Daito Bunka University
Christian Loamanu
Saitama Institute of Technology
Katoni Otukolo
Saitama Institute of Technology
Ryu Koliniasi Holani
Number 8
Saitama Institute of Technology
Piei Mafileo
Full Back
Nihon University
Toetu’u Taufa
Nihon University
Amanaki Mafi
Number 8
Hanazono University
Ataata Moeakiola
Tokai University
Tevita Tatafu
Number 8
Tokai University
Faulua Makisi
Tenri University
Mifiposeti Paea
Saitama Institute of Technology
Amanaki Lotoahea
Hanazono University
Fetuani Lautaimi
Number 8
Setsunan University
Sione Teaupa
Ryutsu Keizai University
Asaeli Valu
Tighthead Prop
Saitama Institute of Technology
* Three other Tongan born players have also represented Japan. Nataniela Oto (Daito Bunka University), Sione Vatuvei, Uwe Helu (both Takushoku University). However they are not listed as they all moved to Japan from New Zealand not Tonga.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The worst of the 2018 Rugby Europe Championship

Unfortunately this year has not been a good one for European international rugby's annual second tier tournament the Rugby Europe Championship. Even though many of the issues have been apparent for some time in 2018 they all came right to the fore. Here is a rundown of the worst of the tournament.

Another predictable and underwhelming Georgian Grand Slam

The Georgian grip on the trophy grows ever firmer as years go by. Whilst over the first 14 seasons of the tournament since it began in 2000 the Lelos won the annual tournament 8 times, only 3 were Grand Slams. More recently over the past 5 seasons they have won 4 Grand Slams, the sole hiccup a one point loss in Bucharest last year.

In years such as this one where their closest rival Romania have to travel to Tbilisi the Georgian Grand Slam has now become very predictable, with the Lelos not having lost at home in this competition since way back in the opening round of the 2004 season against Portugal.

However despite such a strong record in this competition. Georgia still persistently struggle to cut loose and amass points tallies that do justice to their superiority over clearly overmatched opposition. Time and time again we see a dominant pack and plenty of possession, but an infuriating amount of sloppy passes, offloads, and handling errors.
Image result for Georgia Spain 2018
Georgia still frequently struggle to
accumulate good margins of victory
up against far weaker opponents

Only beating Spain's reserves 23-10 was not at all a good result and it is hard imagine any of Georgia's similarly ranked opponents (Japan, Tonga, Italy, USA etc) labouring to such a scoreline. Even worse was their first half against a hopeless Germany side where they only managed 19 points. That was in fact the lowest points tally the Germans conceded in a half of rugby in the entire tournament.

Milton Haig has often talked of his attempts to broaden Georgia's attacking play. Whilst there may have been some success in this regard at junior level, at senior level there is still seemingly little breakthrough and their ability to create and clinically finish try scoring opportunities has shown only minor improvements. The fact yet again forwards outscored backs and props outscored centres or wingers in this tournament doesn't really show much evidence of successful expansion of Georgia's game.

Even though they keep winning, this tournament does not frequently get the best out of Georgia, they will need to play a lot better if they are to get good results on their challenging upcoming June tour.

Understrength teams and sacrificed matches

Whilst it was totally understandable with the priority being securing RWC qualification. It was still not a great look for the tournament to see Spain after they having beaten both Russia and Romania play Georgia with their reserves.

Even though their chance of winning may have been slim, this was still both what looked like at the time being a contest for the title, and an opportunity for Spain to test themselves against the highest ranked opponent they get to face. But they opted not to give it their best shot even though in the end they lost by a respectable scoreline.

Then there was Belgium who struggled to field their best team throughout the tournament. This was especially true away from home where they were hammered 47-0, 48-7, & 62-12 by Georgia, Russia, and Romania. The latter being the worst of those efforts where the Diables Noirs fielded almost a complete reserve team which only included 3 players who remained in the starting XV the following week against Spain (the only match of the tournament they were completely at full strength).

Overall the Belgians used 46 players over the five matches, that's a huge amount and more than anyone else this year in either the Rugby Europe Championship, 6 Nations, or the Americas Rugby Championship. It was also the highest amount of players used by any team in a single season in the tournament for over a decade.
Image result for Belgium rugby
Belgium used a huge 46 players over
the tournament and fielded weakened
teams in all their away matches

Key players for them such as tighthead prop Maxime Jadot, scrum half Julien Berger, or centre Jens Torfs only played two out of the five matches in the tournament. It is far easier said than done with availability with clubs not always easy, but for Belgium to start to make more progress in getting consistent results and start rising from the bottom end of the table they will need to find a way of establishing a more stable selection.

Even in the Americas Rugby Championship, where travel is tougher, there are similar issues with release of European based players, and teams usually not absolutely full strength. There has never been teams virtually surrendering matches with nearly entirely changed XVs like Belgium did in Romania or Spain did in Georgia. Obviously we would never see it in a Tier 1 competition either.

Then of course talking of weakened teams then there is Germany who are a different issue altogether ...

The total collapse of Germany

Undoubtedly one of the worst things about this year's Rugby Europe Championship. Almost as quickly as their rise in 2016/17 with wins over Portugal, Uruguay, then most shockingly Romania. Germany tumbled back down following a dispute between the DRV and their former backer Hans-Peter Wild, an employer of a sizeable percentage of their squad who have since become unavailable.
Image result for Germany Spain rugby
With an average scoreline of 72-7
Germany this year were the worst
team in the tournament's history

The result of this dispute has been that Germany this year fielded a incredibly weak team (including 19 different debutants) that was the worst in the tournament's history. They were thrashed in every single game with an average scoreline of 72-7 and losing margin of 65 points, surpassing Ukraine's tournament record 61 points set in 2005. They also had nearly broken the record for most points conceded in a season with a game to spare.

There have been some very bad teams at the bottom of the REC in the past. From 2000 to 2012 the Netherlands, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and Germany the first time they were promoted, were all on the end of some heavy beatings. It had seemed after 2013 when Belgium and then an improved Germany were promoted those days would be behind us. In 2017 Belgium's average losing margin was 17 points, the lowest in the tournament's history of any team that had lost all their games. But sadly Germany this year managed to bring them back in style.

Needless to say Germany's matches this year were a waste of time and not much fun to watch. Never has a side deserved relegation more but annoyingly they now may manage to stay in the tournament for another year thanks to a row over ineligible players.

It is unknown how long their current dispute will go on for, but hopefully they will get some time to sort it out whilst in a lower division rather than remain and get thumped in every match of this tournament.

Empty stadiums in Romania

In general somewhat improving crowds were one of the few positives of this year's tournament. Georgian rugby continues to attract incredible attendances even for REC matches, plus we saw Spain pack their stadium for first time in many years and the sport reach the front pages in the news, whilst Russia got 11,000 for their opening match in Krasnodar which was also their largest crowd in the REC for a long time, and Belgium packed their little stadium and there are suggestions they could be ready to move to some bigger venues for some matches.
The crowd for Romania vs Russia

The exception though was Romania, whose stadiums looked depressingly empty. There are a few factors behind this. There was freezing weather, which as well as putting off fans from going, also meant Romania had to move to facilities in Cluj (which has few rugby fans) where there is a heated pitch and prevent any risk of a match being cancelled. However what looked like 150 fans (official figures claim 1,500) in a 30,000 stadium is not a great look.

Poor attendances and declining popularity for the sport in Romania has been concern for a while. Sadly it is hard to see what could spark some energy into the sport there as we saw happen in Spain.

Refereeing shambles

For years this tournament has usually been treated to low rank Pro14 referees or rookies from England or France. This has often not come with great results and this year the tournament got under way with Frank Murphy and his touch judges delivering one of the worst missed calls you could ever see to deny Russia a try in a close match with Spain.

Later on Russia vs Georgia, a fixture that is one of the most noteworthy rivalries in the competition, got a young English referee who had not yet done a single Premiership game. Even the Georgia vs Romania Antim Cup rivalry, usually the fixture that decides the tournament got one of the most inexperienced referees in just his first season in the Top 14.

The tournament is essentially viewed as a training experience for the most junior refs and largely just from 6 Nations countries (it should be noted unlike the Americas Rugby Championship there are remarkably few opportunities in this tournament for development of any referees from Tier 2 nations). Understandable perhaps for some of the less consequential fixtures, but for the most important matches in the tournament it is not great.

Also in one of the rare occasions that a referee from a Tier 2 nation did get an opportunity, in Vlad Iordachescu, it of course came at the worst possible time and ended up in total disaster.

Decisions were also further not helped by the lack of TMO in all the games. There has been some passing of the blame for this amongst each Union, but it is something that really ought to be sorted especially for the most important and evenly contested matches. Again the Americas Rugby Championship is ahead of the REC in this aspect as well.

Aftermath of Spain's loss to Belgium

This tournament rarely gains a great deal attention in the mainstream rugby media, but thanks to Spain's loss to Belgium and the ensuing aftermath it certainly did. Although of course not for the right reasons.
Image result for Spain Belgium rugby
The aftermath of Spain's defeat gave
the REC more media coverage than
ever before but not in a good way

No need to revisit in great detail what has already been gone over numerous times. But in short after suffering an upset loss, unfortunately the Spain team went a bit nuts and chased the referee off the pitch, and their behaviour on social media in the week afterwards continued in much the same vein.

There was no calm review of the match, but an outrage mob attempting to push a narrative that this was a clear conspiracy to rob Spain in order to get Romania to the World Cup (it wasn't).

Completely fabricated penalty stats were repeated over and over to try and back this up, angry amateur videos were circulated with complaints such as the ref "being slightly too slow to give a penalty" cited amongst the evidence that this was the most bias refereeing performance of all times, old irrelevant articles from Samoa were dug up amongst other things to push the narrative.

Whilst the FER promoted a hashtag #JusticeForSpainRugby demanding a rematch, of course not long after they had just beaten Russia by virtue of a calamitous refereeing blunder and a match winning try created by an allegedly ineligible player. And another one #JusticeForRugbyValues only days after their own players had just abused and chased the referee from the pitch (and who were also still - again most ironically - calling him a "thug" in the week after as well as promoting fake news penalty counts). The hypocrisy and lack of self awareness here was astounding.

Those who pointed out the fact that the refereeing performance was not really the equivalent of Paddy O'Brien vs Fiji in 1999, or the penalty stats many were justifying their outrage upon were in fact exaggerated, and offered the far simpler explanation for the result which was that Spain were not good enough on the day were accused of being "Romanian" or "anti-Spanish".

Overall this was an utterly embarrassing episode for both Rugby Europe, who totally brought this situation upon themselves, and for Spain with their completely over the top tantrum afterwards.

The ineligible player fiasco
Image result for Victor Paquet rugby
Victor Paquet is one of a handful
of players with eligibility question
marks that has put into doubt the
final results of this year's REC

As the furore from the Belgium/Spain match died down a new controversy emerged. Belgium were found to have fielded an ineligible player in Victor Paquet against Germany. Soon after we discovered Romania's Sione Faka'osilea had played 7s for Tonga some years back. Then the next day it was pointed out Spain had two players in Mathieu Bélie and Bastien Fuster who were tied to France through matches with their U20s, plus had previously fielded Fabien Grammatico, a former France 7s player, against Germany back in 2015. There may still be more. It seems substandard checking in this area may have been going on for quite some time.

So half the teams in the tournament have fielded players with ineligibility clouds hanging over them. The consequences of this are still to be determined. There may be loopholes we are not aware of, or teams could possibly simply be let off lightly.

But one thing it could mean in a possible worst case scenario all those three teams get disqualified from the RWC with Russia and Germany the only ones left standing to progress further.

This would basically mean the entire past two years of RWC qualifying in this tournament will have ended up being a waste of time. The RWC would not get the strongest possible competitors from the REC directly qualifying, whilst the worst ever team in REC history would progress and be a gift to every opponent in the repechage playoffs. Hardly an ideal scenario for the tournament.