2 May 2024

Hosting first Super Rugby Pacific game 'a real boost' for Tonga rugby

6:44 pm on 2 May 2024
Moana Pasifika's Kingdom of Tonga Tour poster. Photo: Moana Pasifika

Moana Pasifika's Kingdom of Tonga Tour poster. Photo: Moana Pasifika Photo: Moana Pasifika

Tonga is set to gain more than just their share of gate-takings when they host their first-ever Super Rugby Pacific game this weekend.

It is also an important one, especially, since half of the Moana Pasifika team that will feature in the calsh against the Highlanders on Saturday is made up of Tonga players.

In a sense, it is a home game for both Tonga and Moana Pasifika.

While ticket sales continue to be ongoing, there is hope the local fans will take a leaf out of the Fijian Drua's campaign - which has seen full houses both at Churchill Park in Lautoka and the National Stadium in Suva.

The hosting of the game at Te'ufaiva Stadium - with a 10,000 capacity - in the capital city of Nuku'alofa came after Super Rugby gave the green light in December last year.

The Tonga Rugby Union (TRU) believes it is a positive sign that will further boost the development of the game in-country, especially particulalry driving the local operations toward a more professional direction.

Interim chief executive 'Aisea Aholelei said there was excitement in the air as local fans prepare to witness the game live at the country's only international rugby stadium.

"The excitement is building. People are running around just doing last minute things and making sure that this game is a spectacle, since it is the first time for Tonga [to be] hosting a Super Rugby game."

Aholelei believes getting to host the game is going to be a boost, as it gives TRU confidence they can host top rugby competition games.

"We are behind most nations in the development of the professional game and this sort of gives us a real boost for our players and programs, to aspire to be part of the best in best competition in the world," he said.

"It gives us some confidence that we can host these games and gives us confidence that our pathways are in the right direction.

"At different levels, it is very positive, especially from a development point of view for the players.

"It is good for the local players that we can give them a pathway to the professional game. As administrators, to grow as a nation and the organisation on the road to a more professional direction for rugby."

Moana Pasifika captain Sione Havili Talitui (left) with Tonga Rugby Union interim chief executive officer 'Aisea Aholelei in Nuku'alofa on Wednesday when the team arrived in the Tongan capital ahead of Saturday's game. Photo: Moana Pasifika

Moana Pasifika captain Sione Havili Talitui (left) with Tonga Rugby Union interim chief executive officer 'Aisea Aholelei in Nuku'alofa on Wednesday when the team arrived in the Tongan capital ahead of Saturday's game. Photo: Moana Pasifika Photo: Moana Pasifika

Practice run for Tests

Hosting the Super Rugby clash will also be a practice run for the TRU, who will also host Test matches against Italy, Spain and the Flying Fijians this year.

Aholelei said 2024 was a special year with all the top rugby games finally coming home after a long time.

They hosted Canada last year in two Test matches and Australia A.

Fiji last played there in 2017 while Italy and Spain will be visiting for their first Test matches, as part of their Pacific Tour.

"We are very starved for Test matches and we could not be more happy with how things have evolved to have three Test matches and also have Super Rugby here," he said.

"We also have a game against the Reds and we are just thankful that there are more games and we have top players coming to play here and our local fans and players can watch them.

"It also gives us a platform for next year and the World Cup. We are thankful for these opportunities."

Excited to play at home

Moana Pasifika head coach Fa'alogo Tana Umaga said they are proud to be able to play a Super Rugby Pacific home game in one of their home nations.

Moana Pasifika includes players of Samoan and Tongan origins.

Majority of the players also play for either the Manu Samoa or 'Ikale Tahi, some featuring at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France.

Playing in Nuku'alofa will also give fans and local players the opportunity to watch some of their stars who played for Samoa, Tonga and the All Blacks.

A number of All Blacks will also be appearing for the Highlanders.

Umaga said they were excited to be going home to Tonga for the first time, home of origin for captain Sione Havili Talitui and original squad captain and former Wallaby Sekope Kepu.

"We are excited, one hundred percent," Umaga said.

"It is the first time that Moana Pasifika will be playing in Tonga and the first time a Super Rugby game is being played in Tonga.

"So that is something we are very proud of."

Umaga is hoping local fans will turn up in numbers to cheer them on, adding the Fijian Drua enjoy that with their home fans.

The former All Blacks great said they miss having their own home crowd because they are based out in Albany, Auckland and is confident Tongans and the Fijian community will turn up to cheer them on this weekend.

A number of the Tongan players in the Moana Pasifika team were in Nuku'alofa in the past two weeks promoting the game, including2023 captain Solomone Funaki.

The players visited schools and held rugby clinics for schools and junior rugby players around Tongatapu.

Tonga's Crown Prince Tupouto'a 'Ulukalala will be the chief guest at the game.

Highlanders wary of heat

The Highlanders are wary of the Nuku'alofa heat, with temperatures predicted to be around 26 degrees at around 2pm (Tonga time) when the game is scheduled to kick off.

The Highlanders play 50 per cent of their games under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Super Rugby media said while it shelters them from bad weather, it doesn't expose them to the tropical heat and all that it brings, playing in Nuku'alofa.

Te'ufaiva Stadium also don't have the heat rooms in which teams like the Highlanders can prepare.

But they have been practising with wet balls in preparation for the slippery ball expected in the humid conditions.

Assistant coach Tom Donnelly said the game would be another test for the side.

Both Moana and the Highlanders will be gunning for a win.

Top eight finishing spots are now being contested and the Highlanders currently sit with 15 points on eighth spot, a point ahead of Moana Pasifika.

Whoever wins can either claim the seventh or eighth position.

In other Super Rugby matches this weekend, leaders the Hurricanes host the Waratahs on Friday while the Rebels also host the Blues on the same night.

Saturday's other matches will see the Fijian Drua face the Brumbies, Crusaders take on the Reds while the Chiefs square off against the Force.