League in Tonga on the rise with World Cup tilt and promising new academy
By Jodan Perry
SYDNEY, Australia-October 10: 3.55pm (ABC): The upcoming Rugby League World Cup received a huge hit of publicity when Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita turned their backs on the Kiwis and Kangaroos respectively to play for Tonga.
Public opinion was divided with critics slamming the circumstances surrounding the decisions, while others applauded their choice to play for the tier-two nation.
When Fifita told his father he would be representing Tonga at the World Cup, he was brought to tears.
It’s a massive shot in the arm for Tongan Rugby League, but there is more good news to come for the small island nation.
Former NRL star Brent Kite is leading the charge to create an academy to nurture young Tongan sporting talent, which will provide the knowledge, skills and pathways to help the next generation of stars to realise their sporting dreams.
Sione’s Academy and Pathways is the brainchild of former Manly player and “Mr Tonga” Sione Finefuiaki.
The 37-year-old has been sitting on his dream for about seven years but is now actively taking steps to make it into reality.
“It’s all about helping our communities and helping our young kids get on the right path to wherever they want to be,” he said.
“Sport is only 10 per cent of your life, the other 90 per cent is before and after,” he said.
“We want to give all the young Tongan kids the skills and knowledge to be able to make the most of their career before, during and after sport, so when they finish their career they have something to fall into.”
Currently Kite, Finefeuiaki and the team are in Tonga meeting with members of parliament and discussing ways to work together to realise the initiative.
Team focusing on skills on and off the field
They are in discussions to hopefully secure land to build a physical academy in which they can implement programs and support for young athletes.
They are also providing sporting clinics at schools to import some of the wisdom the men have learnt throughout their careers in the sporting industry.
Kite, who is also on the board of the NRL’s Pacifica Strategy, says while the initiative is in its infancy, it has been getting backed by some big names.
“We have the likes of John Hopoate and Andrew Fifita endorsing the academy. A lot of these guys want to help they just need to know how,” Kite says.
“Firstly we are targeting the health and wellbeing aspects, the long goal will be to provide facilities around not just the sports, but education also.
“We are just using our profile and the traction we have in sport to tell everyone this is who we are and what we are trying to do. We will let the Tongan people know we are bringing something to them.”
Finefeuiaki finding his voice
For Finefeuiaki, who was first scouted to the Roosters by Rugby League Immortal Arthur Beetson in the year 2000, the difficulties of being a teenager from the Islands acclimatising to the fast-paced life of the city can be daunting.
“The toughest part for me was my confidence with talking. I never knew what to say when, and what words to use, how to start a conversation and how can I answer people in a proper way,” he said.
“I know kids that leave Tonga and join schools or clubs and they are so shy and can’t speak properly and it is so easy for them to fall in with the wrong people.
“They have talent, have been picked up by someone, been thrown into the deep end and put into school or a club without even giving them the basics of what they need before they get there, and that’s what we are going to do is prepare them as best we can before they go anywhere.”
At present the non-for-profit team have been drawing up plans for infrastructure to see what kind of finance they would need to come up with.
The idea is to meet with all the Tongan players in the National Rugby League in the new year and discuss the goals of the academy, and ways they could possibly help financially.
“We want to possibly get some of these current athletes to contribute by way of their management fees, but that is not going to be easy,” Kite says.
“I have sat down with a couple of prominent players and everyone has the same passion for the island nations and they want to help but they don’t know how. So that will be a key to getting some revenue into the academy.”
Finefeuiaki, who believes he did not realise his potential after playing just the one match at NRL level, says the sole reason he wants to follow his dream is to avoid similar situations for the new batch of Tongan sporting stars.
“All I want is for the next generation of young kids to do better than what I did. That’s the whole purpose of why I started this,” he said.
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