Things have moved quite quickly in the month or so since Adriaan Ferris and Viliami Vaki received SOS calls from Tonga sevens head coach Tevita Tu’ifua.
For the past three years Tu’ifua has overseen a squad of New Zealand-based players that has represented Tonga on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series and at the Oceania Sevens.
He was planning to take that squad to Monaco for this month’s Olympic Repechage tournament too, until COVID-19 restrictions intervened.
At the end of April, the Tonga Rugby Union announced that, due to quarantine rules in New Zealand, it would select a squad of European-based players to compete for the final men’s sevens spot at Tokyo 2020.
Ferris, who is based in California, and former Tonga captain Vaki, who is currently coaching in Italy, answered Tu’ifua’s call and agreed to come on board as head coach and team manager respectively.
“In Tonga, they have a concept called loto māfana, which basically translates in English to warm heart and that's the spirit of Tongan people,” Ferris told World Rugby.
“That is a cornerstone of what we want to start building on for Tongan rugby and both Pila (Vaki) and I are just very thankful for the Tongan board for providing this opportunity for us because, you know, they could have gone with anyone really.
“Certainly to be asked by Tevita Tu'ifua and the board is a huge honour certainly for me, and I certainly know with Viliami.
“So, I guess what we're doing is we're really just focused on just one tournament, and if anybody knows anything about sevens, anything can happen on the day.
“So, we're really focusing on day one and making sure that we put our best foot forward. And, you know, our goal is to put ourselves in a position to compete on day two.”
Exciting playing group
The last few weeks have been spent speaking to players and clubs in Europe while monitoring the COVID-19 situation as they attempt to put together a scratch side capable of beating Samoa, Ireland, Zimbabwe and Mexico in Pool A.
Ferris and Vaki will meet up with their players for the first time on Wednesday, although the exact make-up of the squad has not yet been officially confirmed.
Tonga were hopeful they could recruit several high profile players for Monaco, and Ferris cannot wait to arrive in Europe and start working with the squad.
“We have a playing group that are busting at the chops to get together, there's nothing greater than playing for your country,” he said.
“That's exciting because they are a level of player that have experienced different World Cups and professional competitions around the world.
“That said, they're coming out of 15s season, so we don't really know the state that they'll arrive in and the challenges of playing international level sevens is difficult.
“But, the excitement within the group is there to be able to play and play well.”
Ferris was part of the Tonga coaching set up at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 and was an ‘Ikale Tahi assistant in 2014. He is upbeat ahead of the repechage tournament.
“There'll be a lot of people out there that won't believe that we have the ability to qualify for the Olympics, and that's fine,” he said.
“We're very aware of the challenges that exist. But really, it's footy and these lads can play footy.
“So, we'll see how we go. There might be some tired boys at the end of the weekend, but I can promise you, we will certainly give it all we can and all we have, more so for the people of Tonga back home and for the family and friends.
“We're in a no-lose situation, we're in a win-win. We get together, play a bit of footy, have some fun, reconnect, we will be capping a handful of players for the future of Tonga rugby and so, all in all, we've got an opportunity and we're really looking forward to it.”
Tu’ifua, meanwhile, will be watching the action from Monaco via a stream at his home in Auckland, and he is under no illusion about the task facing a squad that has been brought together within a matter of weeks.
“I really can't dwell on that, we've just got to be creative, and you've got to face the reality and we'll just deal with it,” he said.
“[Qualification] would be massive really and that'd be huge not only for Tonga, but it's for the whole programme itself as well and everyone involved.
“So, to pull something out in these difficult times, that’d massively have an impact on the whole lot, not only for Tonga, but the whole programme itself.”
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