Ones to Watch #3: Soane Tonga’uiha

Name: Soane Tonga’uiha

Position: Prop

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 130kg

Club: Northampton Saints

International Caps/Points: 12/0 (3 caps for Pacific Islanders, 9 for Tonga)

 

 

At 6’3″, and weighing in at 21 stones, Soane Tonga’uiha is a straight up beast.

The giant Northampton prop was born in Tonga, but brought up in New Zealand. He tried, without success, to grab himself a Super 14 contract, so he upped sticks and moved to play for Bedford Blues before he got himself a big move to Northampton at the start of the 06/07 season. It took him a couple of seasons, but eventually he grabbed the loosehead position from the legendary Tom Smith, who took the opportunity to make his move towards coaching. He hasn’t looked back since.

At the Saints Tonga’uiha has gone from strength to strength, and not only cemented his place in the side, but also in the hearts of Northampton fans. He was due to leave and move to Saracens at the end of last season, but a last minute change of heart saw him sign another 3 year deal at Northampton. You can see why the fans at Franklin’s Gardens hail him as a hero, where he’s affectionately known as “Tiny”.

The fact is fact, as you might have guessed, Soane Tonga’uiha is anything but tiny. This gigantic man has the ability to change the game completely by himself. If the old adage that your front 5 determine whether you win or lose the game, then Tonga’uiha is definitely a man you’d want in your front 5. His sheer size and physicality, combined with his scrummaging ability and his athleticism for a big man can cause problems for any opposition tighthead in the world, and he can dominate in the scrum and the loose, which often turns games around as he demonstrated for Northampton against Perpignan in last year’s heineken Cup semi-final. He simply bulldozered his way through the French Top14 team. It was awe inspiring, and terrifying, to watch. His sheer hugeness is undoubtedly a massive threat going forward. Every team could use a giant like Tonga’uiha running full pelt onto a crash ball off the side of a ruck. That’s the kind of nightmare that has number 10’s waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night crying for their Mummy, which, no doubt, Nicolas Laharrague still does regularly following the aforementioned 23-7 drubbing at the hands of Tonga’uiha and co.

Couple these things with the fact that Tonga’uiha won the Under-19 World Cup in 2001, and the Under-21 World Cup in 2003 with New Zealand, and you begin to see how highly accomplished a prop this guy really is. His All Black days are long behind him now, opting to play instead, for the land of his birth. He tweeted last Wednesday “I’m a Proud Tongan right now. Bring on Friday.”

Despite the end result of that match on Friday, Tonga’s gain is most definitely the All Blacks’ loss.  Graham Henry would definitely be able to use a loosehead like Tonga’uiha in the side, and his front row would be stronger for having him. Unfortunately I’m not convinced that Tonga will get far at all in this World Cup, and as a result Tonga’uiha won’t get the recognition he deserves.

That’s one of the problems of the professional era though, great players with smaller nations who are miles behind in kit, resources, facilities, coaching staff, sponsorship, finance, and logistics, like Tonga (whose squad have all been sharing one room during their World Cup build up… You wouldn’t get that with many international teams) tend to fall through the cracks where the rugby press is concerned. So while you may not hear Lawrence Dallaglio, Francois Pienaar and chums waxing lyrical about Tonga’uiha on ITV over the next few weeks (unless Tonga majorly pull it out of the bag), this man mountain is most definitely Tonga’s “One to Watch”. A better loosehead prop in this tournament, I would humbly suggest, you will struggle to find.

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Ones to watch #1: Sonny Bill Williams

 Name: Sonny Bill WIlliams

Position: Centre

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 106kg

Club: Canterbury/Crusaders

International Caps/Tries: 4/0

Sonny Bill Williams is a bit of a risk for the All Blacks management at this World Cup. The former Rugby League pro, and sometime professional Heavyweight boxer, hasn’t had a lot of game time in the famous black shirt, putting in a total of 231 minutes, including the full 80 at the first match of this World Cup. Williams is a rock star figure in New Zealand. He’s walked away from the Canterbury rugby league side, turned down the biggest contract offer ever in professional rugby at Toulon (a reported $6million), and even managed to get legendary All Black Jonah Lomu so worked up that he’s called him out for a public fight. Add to that his massive Maori sleeve tattoo, and the fact that he’s a devout Muslim (the first to represent the All Blacks), and you’ll see for yourself that you’ve got a bit of a character on your hands. Everyone seems to have their own opinion of him, and you certainly don’t find too many neutrals when it comes to Sonny.

That having been said, Williams is, without doubt, an absolute beast. At 6’3″ and 106kg he’s certainly a big lad, and along with Ma’a Nonu (who weighs in at an eye watering 110kg, or 17st. 5lbs.) forms the heaviest centre pairing to ever line up for the All Blacks. He’s got super quick hands in the offload, hits you like an articulated juggernaut, and has pace to burn. He’s difficult to bring down, and even harder to dispossess, because he always looks to offload the ball quickly from the tackle. Tonga found that out, ultimately to their undoing today. That kind of quick ball forms the basis of all that’s dangerous about the All Blacks in full flow, and there’s something magic about watching Williams smashing through opposition centres and throwing a back hand pass to a waiting, frothing at the mouth team mate, and to boot he rarely fails to cross the gain line anytime he makes a forage forward. That’s exactly what you’re looking for in a big centre like Sonny, and you can expect to see plenty more of that style of play if he gets more game time For New Zealand at this tournament.

Williams got the nod to start at 12 ahead of Kahui today, although Kahui still got a starting spot on the wing and had a good solid game. Even if the All Blacks didn’t racvk up as many points as they would have liked, Graham Henry will be pleased with his selection in the backs today. Tonga didn’t look like coping with Williams and co. for the whole game, and I’d be hard pushed to see how the back line could have performed any better, so he’ll feel pretty justified in shifting Nonu out to 13 to make space for Williams. Whether he chooses to stick with that lineup is another question. Henry won’t want to unsettle the squad by doing too much juggling, but the rumours are circulating that Sonny Bill won’t sign up again for a new All Blacks contract after the World Cup, and might head off in search of a bigger money contract somewhere. If he has a good tournament there will be plenty of big offers for him to mull over, but the debate is to be had over whether Henry will be willing to risk him for the whole tournament only to have him walk away from the All Blacks setup at the end. It’s a big risk in anybody’s books.

As far as I see it, Sonny Bill Williams is the wild card in the All Blacks pack (not their pack of forwards obviously… I hate when turns of phrase overlap with rugby terms). He’s definitely marked as The High Tackle’s One to Watch for the All Blacks at the World Cup, but beyond that, who can tell…

We’re off…

So, we’re off… today saw the first day of the Rugby World Cup 2011, as the mighty All Blacks, hosts and perennial favourites for the Webb Ellis trophy, took on a surprisingly sheepish Tonga side full of big guys who, at times, looked so overawed with the occasion that I’m surprised they all made it through the game without swooning and faintingat the sheer majesty of the All Blacks. On top of that, the “choke-ometer” made its international TV debut (Dan Carter looked like he was feeling the pinch already), and the noose might be feeling slightly tighter around Graham Henry’s neck, who apparently was voted at #6 in an “Enemies of New Zealand” poll in a national paper. What a bizarre statistic for a coach who’s won 89% of his games in charge. The All Blacks coaching job might be the only one in world sport with higher pressure and expectations than the England football team. At least the All Blacks have the talent to back up the expectations…

Not only did the 2011 World Cup kick off today, but The High Tackle blog also swung into action for the first time ever. We’re going to be blogging throughout the World Cup, and afterwards, looking at the latest news from across the tournament, and the rest of the rugby world.

Over the next few days we’ll be kicking things off (hohoho!) by having a look at some of the players who could be a bit of a surprise package and wow the watching world over the course of the tournament. Some of them you might expect and some you might not, but as always we’ll welcome your views and constructive criticism on the choices we’ve made. We’ll also be keeping up with the games by predicting the results, putting up some post match feedback, and even live tweeting during matches. Let’s hope we can keep up with it all! We might even convince some lovely friends to guest blog for us over the next few weeks to help us out.

So bring it on… early morning starts, late night rugby, red bull, pro plus, a few beers here and there, and clicking keyboards galore as we try to keep up with the action.

Kia waimarie to one and all, and may the best team win. (Or failing that, Ireland)