TONGA kicks off its 2003 Rugby World Cup campaign against Italy tonight and one man who will be keeping a close eye on their progress is ex-international Kinilisiti Fotu.
Fotu, who represented Tonga on the world rugby stage from 1986 to 1994, is undertaking a Diploma in Sports Development course at Port Macquarie TAFE - under the watchful eye of Peter Hickey - while touring with the national squad.
He will balance his TAFE and assistant trainer commitments in Port Macquarie this week before rejoining the tour in time for Tonga's second Rugby World Cup showdown, with Wales, on Sunday.
"I started the course in January, so I'm using this opportunity to complete it this week," Fotu told the Port Macquarie News.
"I'll join up with the touring party from the second game.
"But, in the meantime, I'm keen to see how they go against Italy at Canberra Stadium tonight."
Hickey said he met Fotu, who is also the national under 20 years' rugby coach, in Tonga last year.
"Kini (Fotu) is studying the course to develop sports on all levels," Hickey said.
"Port Macquarie TAFE put the course on line and Kini also gets the chance to study in Port Macquarie for four to five weeks.
"The studies then continue over the internet until the course is completed.
"Kini is the Tongan development officer, but I'm sure he be able to utilise the knowledge he gains from this course in a number of other sports.
"However, they live and breathe union
in Tonga - Kini even has his own national
television rugby show over there."
Tonga has been drawn in Pool D for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, mixing it with the likes of Wales, Canada, Italy and competition heavyweights New Zealand.
"The All Blacks are the team to beat in our pool, that's for sure," Fotu said.
"But I think we'll give the other sides a shake - opposition players never get an easy game against Tonga.
"I'm confident we can make it through to the next stage of the tournament.
"And, if we make the quarter-finals, it will have been a successful competition for Tonga."
The Rugby World Cup also holds a
special place in Fotu's heart - he represented Tonga in the inaugural event in 1987, a tournament that featured the likes of union greats Jonathan Davies, Serge Blanco, David Campese, Gavin Hastings, Grant Fox and Didier Camberabero.
"The tournament was co-hosted by New Zealand and Australia," Fotu recalled.
"Although we failed to reach the second
stage of the competition, we played some very close matches against Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
"In fact, our match against Wales, at Palmerston North, featured the second best try of the tournament.
"I think everyone in the Tongan side had a hand in the try - the movement went from one end of the field to the other.
"I believe the 2003 Rugby World Cup is an open competition.
"I like the way England plays.
"Ireland could surprise a few people while injuries might upset the All Blacks' campaign - they can't afford to lose players like Tana Umaga.
"The crowd will also play a strong role for Australia - it's amazing how much home
support lifts a team."