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It will be a case of friends facing friends when Tonga line up against France on Saturday in Wellington.
For many of the players on the Pacific Island side, France is a home away from home, where they play as professionals.
Eight players on the Tonga team play for French clubs including Mont de Marsan, Lyon, Pamiers, Béziers, Malemort-Brive and Bordeaux. However, it is flanker Samiu Vahafolau and prop Kisi Pulu who will most be surrounded by familiar faces.
Vahafolau and Pulu play for Biarritz Olympique and Perpignan respectively, the two breeding grounds of the France rugby team. Almost half the players on the French national squad originate from one of these two clubs and French speaking Pulu believes this could be to Tonga’s advantage.
“I know what they’ll be saying. It’s an advantage to listen to what they are dong and their game plans. But if they speak really fast I won’t pick it up, but I should get something,” he said.
Pulu understands the French style of rugby. “They have a strong set piece, we need to be up there with the forwards, they are really physical in their forward pack,” he said. “We need to keep the physical side of things going, to keep it up with the French boys.”
Pulu rates centre Maxime Mermoz as a French player to watch. “He’s coming up and is really quick. We can’t give him a chance because he’s really cool and if we give him a chance he’ll cut us in pieces.”
However, Pulu saves his most glowing words for prop Nicolas Mas, who he regards as a mentor. Pulu says playing alongside him at Perpignan has improved his own play and knowledge of the scrum.
“He’s one of the top tighthead props in the world. For me to come from Tonga and play with him, I’m learning a lot about the scrum”, Pulu said. “The Tonga scrum set piece, ages ago, wasn’t that strong, but playing next to Nico Mas, I’ve learnt a lot watching him.”
Vahafolau will see five of his teammates on the opposing side, including scrum half Dimitri Yachvili who he believes is a "maker and breaker" of matches.
“Dimitri, he’s one of those boys that can change the game. If we stop him and disturb his game, that will help us a lot”, Vahafolau said.
The one to watch
Hooker Guilhem Guirado is another who he considers on the rise within the French team.
“He works really, really hard. I’ve played with him for the past four years - he is so strong.
He is going to be the future of the French team the way he’s going and he’s still a young and strong boy.”
Both Tonga players are excited about meeting their clubmates on the pitch. “I’m really looking forward to it, I can’t wait,” said Vahafolau.
Pulu is not keen to predict who the winner will be at Wellington Regional Stadium, saying,
“It’s rugby, whoever is the hungriest when they turn up, performs better.”
But he is sure they will be mates when the dust has settled and is looking forward to a post-match laugh with foreign friends.
“I hope we can see them after, we’ve been together a long time, almost five years, we’re friends," Pulu said. "It’ll be a good game and I’m sure we’ll have a good laugh after the game.”
France have won two of their three previous matches against Tonga, with the Tongans defeating the French 20-16 in 1999.