Wales welcome Tonga to the Principality Stadium this weekend as the third Autumn International of the season sees the return of the now annual test against a second tier team.
Georgia, Japan and Tonga’s fellow Pacific Islanders Fiji have all visited during November in recent years, with the game generally allowing Warren Gatland a chance to blood new players and rest front line players before and after tough games against tier one nations.
That’s not to say these games are walkovers though, far from it, as Wales have won by a cumulative total of just 14 points in the three games mentioned above. Looking back a bit further there was also a defeat at the hands of Samoa in 2012’s Autumn Internationals.
Tonga will certainly be another challenge to add to that list, despite Wales having an excellent record ‘Ikale Tahi, the Sea Eagles, which has seen us win each of the eight matches between the nations dating back to 1986.
Toutai Kefu’s men kicked off their Northern Hemisphere tour with an impressive 38-49 win over a talented French Barbarians side last week, scoring seven tries along the way, as they look to put a marker down ahead of next September’s World Cup.
There’s one change to the Tongan starting XV from that game as Castres’ former Leicester lock Steve Mafi comes into the team.
There’s big changes on the bench though as another Castres man Paea Fa’anunu covers tighthead from the bench while Latu Talakai covers loosehead, Onehunga Havili and Mike Faleafa are the back five options, and Kali Hala and Atieli Pakalani are the outside backs.
Newcastle Falcons’ Sonatane Takulua is the man to watch from scrum-half, while there is a familiar face starting in the front row in the form of Ospreys tighthead Ma’afu Fia.
Tonga: Vunga Lilo, Viliami Lolohea, Alaska Taufa, Siale Piutau (c), Daniel Kilioni, Kurt Morath, Sonatane Takulua; Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Paula Ngauamo, Ma’afu Fia, Leva Fifita, Sitiveni Mafi, Dan Faleafa, Fotu Lokotui, Sione Vailanu
Replacements: Sefo Sakalia, Latu Talakai, Paea Fa’anunu, Onehunga Havili, Mike Faleafa, Leon Fukofuka, Kali Hala, Atieli Pakalani
Wales on the other hand have made 14 changes to the starting XV that beat Australia last week, with second row Adam Beard the only man to retain his place in the team.
Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee and Leon Brown form an inexperienced front row, while Jake Ball slots in at lock for his first test appearance in almost a year. Aaron Wainwright, Seb Davies and captain for the day Ellis Jenkins are the back row selections.
A new look backline sees Tomos Williams make his first home Wales start inside Dan Biggar, while Owen Watkin and Tyler Morgan re-form a Wales U20 centre partnership. Liam Williams, Steff Evans and the uncapped Jonah Holmes are named in the back three.
Starters from last week in the shape of Tomas Francis, Ross Moriarty and Josh Adams drop to the bench where Rob Evans and Cory Hill stay to be joined by Ryan Elias, Aled Davies and Rhys Patchell.
Wales: Jonah Holmes, Liam Williams, Tyler Morgan, Owen Watkin, Steff Evans, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Elliot Dee, Leon Brown, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Ellis Jenkins (c), Seb Davies
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Aled Davies, Rhys Patchell, Josh Adams
As always when any Pacific Island side comes to Cardiff they will be well up for the game, mixing mobility and handling skills with a real physical edge that the Wales team will have to match.
Particularly after last week, when the go-to ball carriers struggled to get across the gainline, players like Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Seb Davies and Owen Watkin will need to step up in the carrying department despite not all being frontline carriers on a regular basis at their regions.
This will give Tomos Williams a chance to get the backline moving, and hopefully his speed of ball will allow Dan Biggar the opportunity to express himself more in a Wales shirt than we have seen before.
With the likes of Tyler Morgan, Liam Williams and Steff Evans outside him there’s more than enough attacking ability to get points on the board, while it will be interesting to see what Jonah Holmes can do on his debut hitting the line from full-back.
There are starting spots to be won in next week’s XV to face South Africa, while all will have half an eye on the plane to Japan in 10 months. First though a good performance against Tonga will be needed.