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Muddy pitch, small venue to host Rugby World Cup qualifier

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — The 19th team in the 20-team Rugby World Cup in France next year is set to be determined Saturday on what is expected to be a mud-splattered pitch in a 10,000-seat stadium north of Brisbane.

Tonga or Hong Kong will advance after the Asia-Pacific qualifying match on Queensland state’s Sunshine Coast. The consolation prize for the losing team will be a spot in a last-chance qualifying tournament in November.

Tonga will be heavily favored in Saturday’s match at the diminutive and cosy Sunshine Coast Stadium at Kawana Waters. The winner will advance directly to Pool B and join defending champion South Africa, No. 1-ranked Ireland, Scotland and Romania.

The winner of the November qualifying tournament, scheduled in Dubai, will advance to Pool C and join Wales, two-time champion Australia, Georgia and Fiji as the 20th team in the Rugby World Cup. The United States, Kenya and Portugal have already confirmed spots in the last-ditch qualifying event.

The two other groups for the World Cup are set: Pool A has France, New Zealand, Italy, Uruguay and Namibia and Pool D comprises England, Japan, Argentina, Samoa and Chile.

The Tonga-Hong Kong match on Saturday will likely be played on a muddy pitch after recent heavy rain and wind lashed the Sunshine Coast, affecting both teams’ preparations. The forecast for is for partly sunny skies, but likely not enough to dry out the field.

Tonga has a strong expatriate community in the area, including former Tongan international and World Cup player Salesi Finau, who attended one of the team's training sessions and posted video on his Facebook page.

Finau’s compatriots warmed up for the playoff by taking part in the Pacific Nations Cup, where coach and former 60-test Wallaby Toutai Kefu used the tournament to test his squad's depth. The Tongans lost all three of their matches against hosts Fiji, champion Samoa and Australia A.

Only Anzelo Tuitavuki, William Havili and Afusipa Taumoepeau started all three Pacific Nations Cup matches as Kefu used 28 players across his three starting lineups.

Hong Kong secured its place in the playoff with a 23-21 win over South Korea at Incheon on July 9.

Until it advanced with a last-minute penalty from Gregor McNeish at Incheon, Hong Kong had not played a test since November 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hong Kong coach and former Welsh player Lewis Evans said Tonga’s losing record in the Pacific Nations Cup can’t be taken too seriously.

“We know how good Tonga can be and they’ve got unbelievable personnel available to them,” Evans told the South China Morning Post newspaper. “They have obviously lost their last three games, but they’ve also had three unbelievable games to prepare for us.”

The Rugby World Cup opens and closes at Stade de France in St. Denis north of Paris. The first group game is a blockbuster between three-time champion New Zealand and three-time runner-up France on Sept. 8, 2023. The the final is scheduled seven weeks later.

In 2019 in Japan, South Africa beat England 32-12 in the final to claim its third title, equaling New Zealand’s record.

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