Scotland Rugby World Cup: Rory Darge ready for ‘interesting’ reunion with Tonga's Sione Vailanu
Darge and Vailanu were part of a very effective Glasgow Warriors back row last season but will be on opposite sides in Nice a week on Sunday as Scotland try to get their campaign back on track against Tonga. The Tongans sat out the first weekend of the tournament as Pool B got underway in Bordeaux and Marseille with wins for Ireland and South Africa over Romania and Scotland, respectively. Toutai Kefu’s side take on the Irish this Saturday at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes, then face Gregor Townsend’s side eight days later. Darge said it would be “weird” going up against Vailanu.
“It will be interesting,” said the North Berwick man. “I like watching him when he is in my team. He typifies what they are all about, big men, a physical challenge, similar to what we faced against South Africa, and we can take confidence from how we defended there, some good contacts, and driving them back at times. Even off the scrum I thought we dealt with the first couple of phases pretty well but then they end up scoring on the third or fourth phase.”
The concession of two tries in three minutes early in the second half left Scotland with a mountain to climb against the world champions and Townsend’s side face a similarly vertiginous assignment if they are to finish in the top two in Pool B and qualify for the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015. There is no margin for error in the remaining group matches, with Scotland needing to win against Tonga, Romania and Ireland if they want to avoid an early exit for the second World Cup in a row. That has never happened before but the scale of the task facing them is far harder than previous tournaments. Tonga, the fourth ranked team in Pool B, have been bolstered by the addition of Malakai Fekitoa and Charles Piutau, former All Blacks who have taken advantage of changes in World Rugby eligibility rules which allow a player to switch allegiance after a three-year cooling off period. Israel Folau, the ex-Australia full-back, was also meant to be part of the squad but is injured.
Fekitoa, 31, was born in Tonga but moved to New Zealand after being offered a rugby scholarship. He went on to win 24 caps for the All Blacks after qualifying on residency grounds and was part of their World Cup-winning squad in 2015. Piutau, also 31, was born in Auckland to Tongan parents and the full-back/wing won 17 caps for the All Blacks.
Glasgow’s Vailanu, who hails from the Tongan capital Nukuʻalofa, had a really impressive first season in Scotland as the Warriors reached the URC play-offs and the European Challenge Cup final under Franco Smith. Darge expects a tough encounter but is grateful for the fortnight Scotland have between their first two games. The squad have been given a few days off to enjoy some rest and recuperation at their base near Nice. “My family isn’t coming out so I will see what the other boys are up to, spend time with my team-mates but not in the same intense environment, it will be a bit more relaxed over the next couple of days,” said Darge.
The 23-year-old’s first taste of playing at a World Cup couldn’t have been much tougher. There was no great surprise in the way the Springboks approached the game at the Stade Velodrome on Sunday night but that didn’t make it any easier and the holders were worthy of their 18-3 win. The speed at which they shut down any potential Scotland attacks left their opponents working with scraps and the Boks were also ruthless in finishing off their two tries, through Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kurt-Lee Arendse
“Knowing what was coming was one thing - they were always going to lay down a physical challenge and come round the corner with big men - but dealing with it is another thing and I think we did deal with it but the line speed and pressure they put our set-piece and skills under, we knew that was coming too, but we didn’t deal with that as best we could,” said Darge. “That will be the general big learnings and obviously the start of the second half. They came out to put us under pressure and disrupt our attacking game. We could have been better in getting more time on the ball and producing the catch, pass and set-piece but it is easy to say that but tough to deliver.”
One area that stood up well against South Africa was the scrum and much credit for that must go to Zander Fagerson who returned to the Scotland front row after suspension. The prop will now look to help get the team back on track against Tonga. “It’s frustrating but we have to learn our lessons and get it right against Tonga,” said Fagerson. “We saw glimpses of what we’re capable of but against the world champions we needed an 80-minute performance. It’s a long tournament and there’s a few twists in the road still to come. We’ll take it game by game so focus turns to Tonga in two weeks’ time.”
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.