SIONE VAILANU’s love of Glasgow Warriors – as the club which re-ignited his career and as a group of friends who have made him feel at home (whilst living 10,000 miles away from his homeland) – is beyond question. But that won’t stop the 28-year-old giving an extra five percent when representing Tonga in Sunday’s crucial World Cup pool stage showdown against Scotland.
The powerful back-rower joined Glasgow from the now defunct Worcester Warriors ahead of the start of last season, and was a revelation playing under Franco Smith with his hard carrying and breakdown work quickly turning him into a fans’ favourite at Scotstoun. His form led to a recall by Tonga after more than a year in the international wilderness.
“I really appreciate and am grateful to Glasgow for what they have done for me in the last season,” he said. “I know I am here because of Franco Smith and his staff, who helped me get back on the road. This is the stage I have been dreaming about for the last four years. I was sad and crying about how I was going to get back and get another opportunity, but Glasgow have made me who I am now.
“Franco is the main influence on me. In my whole career, this was the first season I have felt in really good shape and I played a lot. Franco influenced me really well and managed to get the best out of me consistently. Also the boys in Glasgow are good people. They managed to understand me and my game, which has made my life easier. I love the club and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s ahead there.
“One of my best mates at Glasgow, Matt Fagerson, is going to be playing for Scotland, but for me it comes down to where I come from,” he continued. “I’m playing for Tonga and I’m proud of being Tongan and representing my country, so I have to do my very best, all I can, to win the game for Tonga.
“It’s going to be weird to face one of my best mates, but it is what it is. I’m really looking forward to playing against him.
“First things first, I have to prepare myself well, mentally and physically, to make sure I am 100 per cent ready to go. They know how I play, they know everything about me, so I have to bring an extra five per cent compared to what I have been doing in Glasgow. I really want to play well against them.”
Vailanu added: “I didn’t get selected for the last World Cup. I was really disappointed and I knew I had something to work on to get back into the team.
“In 2021, I didn’t play at all, I wasn’t picked, but ever since I signed for Glasgow, things have improved. I have been talking to the [Tonga] coach all season and he said he was impressed by how I performed. He texted me to say: ‘Keep doing what you’re doing’ – and here I am at the World Cup.
Vailanu, who played the final 21 minutes as a replacement for Tonga in their 59-16 defeat to Ireland on Saturday, says that there is plenty of positives for the Pacific Islanders to take from that match. Spurred on by the enthusiastic support they are getting from back home, he and his team-mates have identified Sunday clash as their best chance of claiming a Tier One scalp at this World Cup.
“It was the first game of our World Cup and we were playing Ireland, who had prepared well and are the number one ranked team in the world. We played pretty well in parts but there were a few opportunities in the game that we missed,” he said.
“We are looking at the positive things we can take out of this game, and there were some. We need to improve our set-piece. Attack-wise we were okay, but we let some mistakes get into our game. We are happy that we managed to get Charles Piutau [their former All Black full-back who was at one time the highest paid player in world rugby] and players like him into the game, and we did some damage around the breakdown. We had some good handling and we box-kicked well from our half quite well. We can take all these good things into the Scotland week.
“Scotland want to finish in the top two in the pool, but for us, Scotland is the best opportunity [of the three Tier One nations they will face in this pool stage] to have a good go. Scotland is a big opportunity for us, and hopefully we can do well against them.
“Rugby is the number one sport in Tonga,” he continued. “People are always right behind us. We were unlucky against Ireland but this week the boys are doing their recovery well and we will make sure we will prepare well. It’s not going to be easy against Scotland and we have to make sure we do the right things.”
Vailanu and centre Malakai Fekitoa raised £80,000 last year to support those who had been effected by the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai eruption and tsunami which caused major damage on the islands in January 2022. He added that the team will draw extra motivation for Sunday’s match – not that they need it – from it bing an opportunity to give the people of Tonga something to celebrate after that ordeal.
“It’s pretty good now,” he said. “If you go to Tonga now, you would hardly know that there had been a tsunami. There has been so much building and recovery work, everything is brand new, it’s beautiful.
“As I say, rugby means so much to people in Tonga and we feel that responsibility. When we played Ireland, it was 8 o’clock in the morning back home and before the game, a few mates sent me pictures of what was happening in Tonga. There were parades, parties, everyone getting right behind us.
“This week, the people will be even more excited. They have faith in us as a team and we all hope we can put a smile on the faces of people who were affected, saw their homes destroyed or were left hungry by what happened last year. Hopefully we can give them a smile this week.”
- Former Glasgow Warriors and Scotland back-row Rob Harley has joined Old Glory DC, who play in the USA’s MLR. The Washington based side are a partner club of the Scottish Rugby Union although that investment was ‘written down’ in last year’s accounts.