Four Tongan internationals headed by ex-Northampton prop Soane Tonga’uhia are powering a small Bedfordshire club towards the second division of English rugby – one step away from the Gallagher Premiership.
Ampthill RFC are one point clear in National Division One and if they can maintain their form, promotion to the English championship will see the club join famous names such as Richmond, London Scottish and nearest rivals Bedford.
If they do complete the journey into the second rung of the English game it will be a tribute to influence of their experienced Tonga internationals, Tonga’uhia, former Cardiff back rower Maama Molitka, ex-Chiefs and Gloucester hooker Aleki Lutui and Paino Hehea, who played lock for Calvisano.
So, how did four Tonga internationals end up at Ampthill? The answer is 36-times capped Viliami Ma’asi who started the Tongan influence when he arrived at Ampthill in 2011/12 becoming the club’s popular captain but had to retire in December 2016. Ma’asi’s rugby legacy is even more impressive with one of his son’s Samson at Northampton and part of the England U20 squad, Suva Ma’asi is at Peterborough Lions and Ricky is in the Wasps academy.
Ampthill have a famous head coach in Paul Turner, the ex-Wales outside half and a former coach of Sale, Saracens, Gloucester, Harlequins and Newport Gwent Dragons. Turner told RugbyPass the chance of getting into the Championship is an exciting challenge and the influence of Tonga’uhia is vital as he offers vast experience and technical insight as forwards coach and first team player.
For Turner, the opportunity to coach Aleki Lutui was something he tried to achieve while at the Dragons having seen the hooker cause the British and Irish Lions problems in Bay of Plenty colours in the opening match of the 2005 tour when Lawrence Dallaglio broke his ankle. Turner’s attempt to sign Lutui failed because the hooker could not get a work permit although he eventually made it to the UK, signing for Worcester.
While all but Tonga’uhia (37) are in their 40’s, Turner confirms all of his Islanders are still making a major impact, most notably Molitka who is bossing opposition back rowers at the age of 44. To add to the international mix, Canada’s James Pritchard is the club’s backs coach.
Turner said: “ This is my seventh season with Ampthill which is a small community club with a big junior section. I brought Vili Ma’asi from London Welsh and he started it all off and has been the most influential Tongan at the club. I knew Maama from his time at Cardiff Blues, Paino arrived from Racing and then Lutui came. I really wanted to sign him for the Dragons and it took 10 years before I finally got him! Soane, who is playing and coaching the forwards, came in this season and the Tongan guys have been brilliant and instrumental in everything we have achieved.
“Guys like Lutui are made of iron and Maama has been the form No8 in our league for the last four years. We have a link with Saracens and two seasons ago we had Nick Isiekwe and Ben Earl with us and also guys from Northampton get experience with us. If promotion happens I would like to come this season and it probably won’t be decided until April in a league that has 30 games.”