World Cup Countdown: Tonga

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 387 (July 2013)

Tonga will have a host of big names stars in their squad for the World Cup later this year.

Speak to any member of Tonga’s RLWC2013 squad and there’s one word that crops up in almost every conversation – ‘pride’.

Perhaps it’s the strong sense of family, culture and tradition ingrained in people of Tongan heritage.  The long-awaited return of homegrown legend Fuifui Moimoi, or the acquisition of NRL premiership winners Brent Kite and Sika Manu.  Or the sense of national identity instilled by long-serving coach Charlie Tonga, who visits his namesake kingdom on a monthly basis.

Whatever the inspiration, the stars have aligned in the red and white jersey this year to create the strongest side Tonga has ever assembled.  And when Mate Ma’a Tonga (‘die for Tonga’) take the field against Scotland in their World Cup opener at Workington, expectations will be justifiably high.

Moimoi is the most recognisable figure in Tongan Rugby League.  The 33-year-old left Tonga for New Zealand as a teenager but, despite over a decade as one of the NRL’s most popular stars, he remains as softly spoken and humble as his countrymen who still reside in the islands.

“It had been a long time since I played for Tonga,” Moimoi reflects as he watches young Australians of Tongan and Samoan heritage at a coaching clinic with his teammates at Sydney’s Cabramatta Stadium.  “I made the decision last year to give something back to the Tongan team and the Tongan people and play for Tonga again.  I’m so proud to be a Tongan.”

Tonga Rugby League secretary Lopeti ‘Uhatafe, who is based in Nuku’alofa but traveled to Sydney for the recent Test match against Samoa, agrees.  “Fuifui is a very important icon for Tonga, because he grew up and started playing in Tonga,” he says.

“He (Moimoi) went to New Zealand when he was 19 and became one of the best props, and that shows that people back in Tonga have the potential to become one of the best.  Rugby League in Tonga is getting big now because people hear the names Moimoi, (Anthony)

Tupou, Kite, Manu, all those big names, which makes everyone stand up and support us in any way they can.”

Family values The Kingdom of Tonga is the only monarchy in the Pacific, and the only nation in the region that has never been formally colonised – a cause of pride in itself.  Traditional culture, Christianity and family bonds remain strong guiding principles for Tongans both at home and overseas.

Although several members of the 2013 squad were born and raised in Tonga, many have reached the Mate Ma’a ranks thanks to the traditional upbringing they received from their parents in Australia or New Zealand.

“It’s good that so many NRL boys have come back to choose their roots and are not following the money,” enthuses former Castleford forward Richie Fa’aoso, now with Manly, who has been playing for Tonga since 2004.

“They might not come from Tonga or be (only) half Tongan like me, but their heart’s Tongan and they want to make their family proud.”

“My Mum’s Tongan and I was always brought up with the culture,” explains newly appointed Tonga captain Brent Kite, a two-time premiership winner with Manly and a former Kangaroos and New South Wales representative.  “Any Tongan is a really proud Tongan, and my Mum is no different.

“I was lucky enough to play for Tonga when they gave me a start back in 2000 (at the World Cup) and I’ve been lucky enough to go on and represent Australia, but I’ve always wanted to come back and, in a small way, give something back to Tongan Rugby League.”

Thirteen years on from that first appearance, Kite will skipper a star-studded squad in pool games against Scotland, Italy and the Cook Islands, and possibly beyond.

“Last time I played for Tonga was over there (in the UK) and I was playing reserve grade, as most of the squad were,” Kite recalls.

“But this time I think we’ll be taking a much higher calibre of player, and going over with some quietly high expectations of each other and the team to do really well, to at least get through our pool, and maybe knock off one of the more highly rated teams.”

Pride and passion These days over 30 per cent of NRL players are of Polynesian heritage, with an even larger cohort moving steadily through the junior ranks.  The production line has provided coach Charlie Tonga, who has been at the helm since 2010, with a greater player pool than ever, but he insists the door is only open to those who are truly committed.

Tonga explains: “Guys like Tony Williams and Michael Jennings – if they don’t make the Australia squad they’re eligible to come and play for Tonga.  But, at the moment, I’m more focused on the guys who have given up their time and put their hand up already – I want to be loyal to these guys.

“For those other guys, it’s not going to be easy for them just to walk in.  They’re going to have to earn their way into this jersey, because that’s what I’m really working on – putting the pride back into the jersey.  Before, it used to be just handed out, but this year everyone is going to earn the jersey and fight for it.”

There was no lack of fight on show in Tonga’s most recent run-out, a 36-4 demolition of fierce rivals Samoa in the inaugural mid- season Pacific Test in Sydney.  It was a bruising encounter despite the scoreline, while the preceding week-long camp provided a crucial opportunity to take stock ahead of the World Cup, according to coach Tonga.

“I reminded the boys all week what it’s really about, why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and it showed…the pride and the passion of the fans and our Tongan people.  This is truly one of the best teams that Tonga has put out there, the talents that we have, and we’re so excited.”

The Tongan team will spend several days in the island nation en route to RLWC2013 to connect with their home support base and players from the country’s thriving domestic competition, two of whom will join the squad on the plane to England.

One of the frontrunners is Sydney Havea, who has spent the past few months sharpening his skills in Townsville after being singled out as a future star by the national coach.

“It’s an honour and a big thing – all the local boys want to be in the World Cup,” Havea admits.  “Working with the team has been a great experience for me and I’ve learnt a lot from the NRL boys.”

While pride may be key for Tonga, the side will be playing for much more than that at RLWC2013.  As is the case for most Pacific nations, Tonga’s performance this autumn will have a huge bearing on sponsorship income and domestic development for the next four years.

As the Mate Ma’a head towards the tournament with their strongest squad ever, veteran Etu Uaisele, who grew up in Tonga and now plies his trade with Wyong Roos in the NSW Cup, sums up the mood.

“It’s really, really important for Tongan Rugby League, because now you see guys who used to play for New Zealand and Australia choosing to play for Tonga, and young kids in the future will want to play for Tonga too,” Uaisele adds.

“Hopefully we’ll turn up and do a good job, and inspire them to play for their country.”

By: Joanna Lester