The builder who became a Test Limit Super Rugby rookie in less than a year

It was hard to discern many positive storylines as the All Blacks defeated Tonga 102-0 in their season opening at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium last July.

Against a grossly underpowered ‘Ikale Tahi outfit, deprived of many of their professional players due to Covid-enforced travel restrictions and European rugby commitments, the Kiwis made 17 tries in a mismatch of the highest degree.

The defeat sparked discussions over World Rugby’s eligibility laws, which were amended later that year, and underlined the numerous difficulties Pacific countries face as they try to stay competitive on the international rugby scene.

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Nevertheless, the pride the Tongan players had in representing their country, despite hiding that they endured difficult conditions – 13 of whom did for the first time – was one of the few positives that came out of the match.

Among those who wore the ‘Ikale Tahi jersey for the first time that night was hooker Sam Moli, who sees his time in the Tonga national team as the spark that ignited his professional rugby career.

Prior to his international call up, Moli worked as a builder and played club rugby at grassroots level while waiting for the NPC season to start with Tasman.

Since his NPC debut in 2017, the 23-year-old has played a supporting role for the Mako, making just seven appearances in the span of four seasons.

At the time, his playing career was limited to semi-professionalism as he held on to his role as a trader during the provincial off-season.

That changed last year, however, when a fateful phone call from Tonga head coach and former Wallabies No. 8 Toutai Kefu on a work shift sparked Moli’s rise from tradition to full-time Super Rugby player.

“That experience, it came out of the blue,” Moli, the younger brother of All Blacks prop Atu . told RugbyPass from his shocking call to the ‘Ikale Tahi’, which probably wouldn’t have happened if Tonga hadn’t had to dig so deep into their scarce player pool.

“I was just on the tool, playing club rugby, waiting for the NPC to start, then this Australian number called me, and I was like, ‘Who’s this?’

“He said, ‘It’s Kefu,’ and I said, ‘Eh?’ It was Tonga’s coach, so I said ‘Jeepers’, but it was kind of funny how it all happened.”

As things played out, Moli made his test debut for Tonga in their thump at the hands of a full All Blacks side in what was a harsh introduction to international rugby.

Of the nine debutants in Tonga’s starting line-up, Moli was one of six newcomers to the front pack with players not playing first-class rugby in New Zealand for years.

Loosehead supporter Duke Nginingini, for example, played the last of his four NPC games for Waikato in 2017 when he was named to start against the All Blacks.

Likewise, Don Lolo’s only experience in first-class rugby came in the Heartland Championship, the amateur second tier of provincial rugby in New Zealand, of which he played three seasons between 2014 and 2017.

Against an All Blacks side full of stars from Super Rugby and Japanese club rugby, it’s no wonder Tonga struggled to keep the floodgates from opening.

However, Moli cleared himself well enough to earn two more starts against Samoa and the Cook Islands in Tonga’s World Cup qualifiers in the weeks following the All Blacks test.

While Tonga took just one win out of their four tests last July, Moli said: RugbyPass that he “loved every part” of the test window while “meeting new people and learning a lot and getting a taste of what international rugby is all about”.

He also credits his time in the ‘Ikale Tahi camp’ as a life-changing experience that gave him the exposure needed to earn his first-ever Super Rugby Pacific contract with Moana Pasifika.

Moli isn’t the only member of last July’s Tonga squad to be part of the expansion franchise, as he is joined at Moana Pasifika by Lolo, casual forward Solomone Funaki, utility striker Sione Tuipulotu and midfielder Fine Inisi.

A full-time professional rugby player, Moli is enjoying his newfound lifestyle after moving from the workplace to the football field, where he can train and play for a living.

“I think I’m going down that path” [with Tonga]“I think that opened the doors to Moana, and I’m very grateful for that experience for Tonga, and I think that really helped me get to where I am today,” he said.

“Personally, for me, I think you wake up a little grateful. It’s not about waking up at 5 in the morning, making coffee and going to work.

“You’re actually thankful that you get to come to work and do something you love, instead of just standing in the sun.”

Now in the midst of his first pre-season with Moana Pasifika, Moli is hopeful that his new role in a fully professional environment will help him achieve further accolades for Tonga, possibly alongside his older brother.

“I will definitely train very hard during this period of Super Rugby. I do have a goal. I still want to keep playing tests for Tonga, and the main goal is to try to make it to the World Cup in 2023,” he said.

Before then, however, Moli is determined to continue his rapid progression by delving into Moana Pasifika’s set-up over the coming season, who will start for his side against the Blues on February 18.

“Probably getting myself at my best and being able to perform in training, on the pitch, whenever the opportunity arises,” he said of what a successful debut Super Rugby Pacific season looks like for him.

“Just to be better, to make myself better with my knowledge of the game and hope to take that to the NPC and just blast away from there. Now try and get all the experience and knowledge.”

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