Tongan rugby league tackles challenge of building on World Cup success

For the mighty Mate Ma'a Tonga, making last year's Rugby League World Cup semi-finals may have been the easy part.

Now, the Tongan programme faces a challenge familiar to most underdog New Zealand sports teams that have over-achieved on the world stage - how to make that success sustainable.  

But local administrators are adamant that further international glory - maybe even World Cup victory - is only a matter of time.

The real first test of this belief comes this week, when Tonga's Auckland-based U16 and U18 age group teams contest the Pasifika Youth Cup tournament, hosted by the New Zealand Warriors and New Zealand Maori Rugby League.

Last year, the teenagers progressed to both finals, losing to NZ Maori in the older grade and Samoa in the younger.

But that was before the tiny island nation and its far-flung fans went league-crazy, taking the World Cup event by storm.

When blockbusting forward Jason Taumalolo and a handful of other NRL stars turned their backs on New Zealand Kiwis selection to wear the red of Tonga, they created a seismic shift that may have ongoing repercussions, not just across league.

Jason Taumalolo
Jason Taumalolo inspired Tonga with his decision to pull out of the NZ Kiwis. Photo credit: Getty

Anytime they played, their ultra-passionate support base followed them, creating a few headaches for unprepared organisers and community leaders along the way.

"The fans that turned up were fans of Tonga, not rugby league fans," insists Hakula Tonga Aotearoa sports director Hengi Fusitu'a. "It just happened to be a rugby league event and these kids will support anything Tonga.

"What we found after the World Cup was an influx of players interested in playing for Tonga.

"Last year, we had 40 trial for these teams - it wasn't much of a trial and it was a matter of whoever turned up - but this year was a different story."

More than 100 candidates put their hands up for selection this time, many of them from outside the code.

One of those was Sila Titiuti, a loose forward in the St Kentigern College rugby first XV, but now a second-rower and captain of the Hakula Tonga U18 team.

"The World Cup was moving," admits Titiuti. "The way the guys played and the sacrifices they made were inspiring, not just for us Tongans, but other cultures as well.

"They really put us on the map. We're just a small dot, but I think everyone knows we're not just a place in the world now."

Titiuti is loathe to turn his back on the 15-man game that has offered him so much so far, but rugby league now looms as a viable alternative, just as it was for Mate Ma'a centre Konrad Hurrell, who came from Tonga on a rugby scholarship to Auckland Grammar and now plies his trade with the NRL Gold Coast Titans.    

"My career was all about rugby and it still is, but this has created some options for me," says Titiuti. "I want to keep my mind open to other sports and other pathways."

Like that World Cup team, cultural pride is also integral to the Hakula Tonga programme.

"Culture is massive to our campaign, which is so good for us young 'uns who were born here and are residents here, and we don't get to learn much about our culture back home," says Titiuti.

Hakula Tonga
The Hakula Tonga teams are proud to wear the red jersey. Photo credit: Newshub.

"We're learning that at camp, and our faith plays a vital part in our training and our campaign overall."

Many of these Hakula Tonga players are also part of NZ Rugby League talent development programmes and while current eligibility criteria allows them to represent both countries, at some point, they may face the same difficult decision their Mate Ma'a idols made last year.

"Those World Cup players really changed the value of the Tongan jersey," says Fusitu'a. "They made it something others want to play for in the future.

"We encourage these boys to take advantage of those NZRL opportunities. We hope they will choose Tonga, but it's a personal decision and we will support them whatever they decide."

Newshub.  

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz