SCORING four tries is not a bad way to mark your first start in the dark blue jersey, but Kyle Steyn insists that his recollections of helping Gregor Townsend’s side to a 60-14 win over Tonga in November 2021 causes him to wince as well as smile.
“It’s funny because playing Tonga rekindles different kinds of memories for me,” he explained, ahead of next Sunday’s re-match against the Pacific Islanders in Pool B of the World Cup. “There are the fond memories of my debut, having fans back at Murrayfield [for the first time after Covid] and scoring four tries – that was all great. But I remember a few shots to the ribs pretty well too, so we’re expecting a big game.
“Tongan people are a really proud culture. They love to represent their families, it’s all really emotional, and all of that will only be amplified on a world stage as it is for anyone. They’ll come out of the gates hot and firing, but we’re excited by that and excited for the challenge.”
Scotland will face a very different Tonga next Sunday team to the experimental ensemble they racked up 10 tries against just under two years ago, not least because they have been bolstered by the recruitment of a handful of former All Blacks, with full-back Salesi [formerly Charles] Piutau, outside-centre Malakai Fekitoa and scrum-half Augustine Pulu all adding experience and know-how to the ‘Ikale Tahi backline.
That trio – along with the suspended wing/centre George Moala – have switched allegiance through the same three-year international stand-down law as former Australia cap Jack Dempsey has used to qualify for Scotland.
Meanwhile, the familiar face of Glasgow Warriors star Sione Vailanu will add power to the Tongan back-row, regardless of whether he starts against Scotland or comes off the bench as he did in their 59-16 defeat against Ireland last [Saturday] night.
“He’s typical of Tonga on all fronts – he’s an absolute giant,” said Steyn, of his Scotstoun clubmate. “I can’t tell you how many times I said all through last season how glad I was that he was on our team. It’s so funny that now he’s on the opposition.
“He absolutely loves Tonga and playing for Tonga so I’ve no doubt that personal edge for him – having some club team-mates to play against – is only going to fuel his fire.”
Steyn has some fire of his own that he would like to get out of his system next weekend after missing out on selection for Scotland’s World Cup opener against South Africa. With nine tries in 13 international matches played so far, there is no doubt that the 29-year-old knows his way to the line – but he faces stiff competition for a starting spot on the wing against Darcy Graham and Duhan van der Merwe.
“I’m absolutely chomping at the bit to get some minutes under my belt,” he said. “Regardless of whether you played, it was nice to have a couple of days off after the South Africa game. Everyone in the squad had thrown everything into that game and to play the way we did was pretty disappointing.
“It worked out really well for us that we could get away from it then get back on the horse. Training has been firing, so you can see everyone is keen to get back into it.
“We’ve looked back and seen how many opportunities we had missed against South Africa, and it was more than we had originally thought. That’s something that was a real strong point over the summer games, so it’s just about making sure that we go out there and impose our game on Tonga.
“We’ve spoken a lot about the fact we defended really well – they put us under a lot of pressure and we absorbed that– but on the flip-side we weren’t relentless enough in applying pressure when we got the chance to.
“That’s the big growth area for this game – making sure that when we get a chance, we own that moment and apply pressure.”
“It’s about skill accuracy but also our accuracy at the breakdown – South Africa slowed down our ball way too easily and that killed our attack in its tracks.
“In Test rugby, you’re going to have to go deep into the phase count. Under that fatigue, can we still execute and pull the trigger? Those are the big work-ons going into Tonga.
“That’s the nature of the beast. It’s knock-out rugby so if you don’t get better, you go home.”
As for the possibility that he could in line for some particularly close attention from Tonga’s hard-hitters next Sunday, Steyn replied: “It would be a bit egotistical to think I have a target on my back from a game two years ago,” he smiled.“I’m sure [star stand-off] Finn Russell will have a target on his back, but I’m just desperate to be in the 23 and we will go from there.”