Analysis – After nearly four weeks of hype and excitement, Ōtāhuhu can sleep knowing history was made.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand – November 27: 10am (RNZI): We’re a rugby nation in New Zealand with the credentials to prove it, but when the Tongan team beat Scotland in their first rugby league World Cup game in Cairns, the league movement awoke.
The team’s name, Mate Ma’a Tonga, means “die for Tonga” and arguably that’s the passion the team and fans alike brought to the game.
A hum began when the $10m NRL star Jason Taumalolo hit the headlines after he chose to represent Tonga, where his parents were born, and not his birth country of New Zealand. Three other would-be Kiwis also joined the Tongan side, along with Andrew Fifita, who would have played for the Kangaroos.
The team came out strong, thrashing Scotland 50-4, before heading to New Zealand to play the next two games in Hamilton – the first against Samoa and the second against the Kiwis.
About 3500 fans turned up to Auckland airport when the team arrived from Australia – not a number to laugh at in the middle of the night.
Ōtāhuhu in South Auckland partied before the arrival and hasn’t stopped since. The streets were filled with cars covered in flags attached to windows and on bonnets. Island tunes blared as people cheered, tooted horns, and even danced in the street. I don’t think many people went to work that Tuesday. Some children didn’t go to school the following day when the team met with fans.
Being half Tongan and half Palagi I can see both sides. Tongans are extremely loyal to their island nation. We have a royal family who are highly respected. Tradition and religion remains very strong and sacrifice and honour are values that run through our blood and are told in many of our stories. So when fans painted Ōtāhuhu red as well as the stadiums they played in, I wasn’t surprised.
I talked to many fans at the two games in Hamilton who had travelled from all over the country and the world – an indication of the physical lengths Tongans go to to support fanau and culture. Many weren’t league supporters but said supporting the team was about something bigger. It was to show New Zealand, and the world, that Tongan people can succeed despite the set-backs we face.
They were proud of the players who turned down big pay cheques from tier-one teams because it showed culture was more important. If one person succeeded, we all succeeded, they said. This was also the reason why headlines about arrests for disorderly behaviour were and are so personal – we are all brothers and sisters.
The Tongan players were up against it. They were given about $30 a day and were paid $500 per game compared to the thousands, or tens of thousands, paid to players in higher placed teams.
The team had to travel from Australia to New Zealand during pool play along with other second-tier teams. Confusion around where the team was able to train in Christchurch for the quarter-finals meant players had to personally pay for a gym session – spending nearly their whole per diem.
But the players never complained.
The team’s spirit and bond was obvious. They always made time for their fans wherever they were even though they were mentally and physically preparing for their test clash. Player Sio Siua Taukeiaho said it sent shivers down their spines when hymns would silence the stadium, motivating the team to push over the try lines.
Today – on Sunday – those hymns will be sung at church. Even though the team didn’t make the final, they made history when they beat the Kiwis – becoming the first second-tier nation to pip a first-tier team, and along with Fiji, represented the Pacific Islands in the semi-finals (semi-finals!).
It’s not every day that society enables Tongan success, but today we stand with our shoulders back and chests high. The players who returned to play for Tonga showed it was possible. The other players who didn’t have the same international exposure rose to the occasion and their people will forever respect their actions.
Maybe this was the wake-up call sports disciplines needed. The Tongan players are big, but the system is bigger. Imagine if the team was better resourced and paid on par with others reaching the same high levels.
But Mate Ma’a Tonga and the fans gave it a good nudge. New Zealand will see us coming for the next World Cup, whatever the sport, because when we succeed we celebrate, albeit a little bit louder and for a bit longer than our Palagi tokos (friends).