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Eligibility dispute hits Tonga on eve of All Blacks Test

The average score from six previous Tests between New Zealand and Tonga is 70-7 including a 92-7 hiding before the 2019 World Cup.

Tonga’s rugby team was forced to replace prop Tau Kolomatangi on Friday, on the eve of their Test against the All Blacks in Auckland, after he was found to have previously played for Hong Kong, making him ineligible.

Because of Covid-19 travel restrictions, Tonga are already without several senior players based in Europe and have drafted in 13 uncapped players into their matchday 23 for Saturday’s game.

Kolomatangi, who weighs 145kg (320lbs) and is nicknamed “Tow Truck”, turned out for Hong Kong in one match against Belgium in 2019.

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Tonga is disputing his Hong Kong eligibility and questioned whether Kolomatangi had completed three years residency, but accepts that until it gets a ruling from World Rugby the heavyweight prop must be sidelined.

“That could take weeks, possibly months,” team manager Lano Fonua told AFP, with a decision not expected before Tonga plays Samoa later this month in a World Cup qualifying series.

They have replaced Kolomatangi with another uncapped player, Luatangi Li, who plays for the Northland provincial side in New Zealand as well as the San Diego Legion in the United States.

The scoreline is of only academic interest in the Test, with the All Blacks’ focus on preparing for the tougher Rugby Championship ahead while Tonga eyes their World Cup qualifying matches.

The average score from six previous Tests between New Zealand and Tonga is 70-7 including a 92-7 hiding before the 2019 World Cup — which Tonga coach Toutai Kefu sees as a good omen.

“We had the same scenario leading up to the (2019) World Cup when that scoreline blew out and in the World Cup we put ourselves in with a chance to win most of those games late in the second half,” Kefu said.

“It’s going to be a big step down when we do play Samoa, so that might give us an advantage.”

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At the World Cup, Tonga were down 28-0 to Argentina after 30 minutes and lost 28-12, while they were narrowly beaten 23-21 by France after trailing 17-7 at half-time.

All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock said their concern was solely on putting on a good performance and they were not concerned with the quality of the opposition.

“The first Test is always challenging no matter who you’re playing. We’re just worried about what’s in front of us this week,” Whitelock said.

The All Blacks have a side stacked with experience in key positions but many are unlikely to be in the reckoning when the Rugby Championship starts.

Sam Cane, Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick, Joe Moody and Anton Liernert-Brown head a stellar cast of players who are either injured or being rested yet the All Blacks have still assembled 525 caps worth of seasoned played to face Tonga.

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