4 Nov 2019

Tonga Rugby league's historic win: A victory to silence the critics

From First Up, 5:52 am on 4 November 2019

Tonga's league stars and their loyal fans have silenced the critics after the Tonga Invitational XIII team made history on Saturday defeating World Champion Australian Kangaroos.

While Tonga couldn't be beaten on Saturday, Community leader Manase Lua says fans also remained undefeated with the sea of red returning in full force.

Tongan fans celebrate their team's win over Great Britain in Hamilton

Tongan fans celebrate their team's win over Great Britain in Hamilton Photo: Photosport

"The boys played out of their skin. They played for the community. They played for King and Country. They made us all proud," he said.

"At the end of the day, all the drama, all the politics aside, the community rallied together and this was the team that the people all backed. They didn't care about all the noise and the drama outside. All we wanted was to make sure the players were able to play and that our supporters were there to back them."

Mr Lua pushed a heavy campaign over the past few weeks calling on fans to back the team despite a tumultuous few months behind the scenes for the players and their management.

After Tonga's 14-6 victory over the British Lions the previous weekend, the Tonga National Rugby League board agreed to withdraw from legal proceedings in Tonga's supreme court, leaving the government and the International Rugby League Federation to determine which sporting body in Tonga will be recognised as the official governing body of the game in Tonga.

But the noisy politics were drowned out on Saturday night when Tonga's powerful defence sent the sea of red fans into uproar - the vast majority of them making up the 25,000 filling the Eden Park stadium.

The Pacific Island nation pulled off the biggest upset in international rugby league on Saturday night in their final match of the Oceania Cup tournament, becoming the first tier-two country to knock over Australia with a stunning 16-12 victory at Eden Park. 

Mr Lua says what players have sacrificed to put on the red jersey for Tonga is a huge deal for the people of Tonga.

The Tonga Invitational XIII celebrate beating Great Britain.

The Tonga Invitational XIII celebrate beating Great Britain. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"They've made personal sacrifices beyond actual reason and logic because most people at their level would have opted to play for the Kiwis or Australia if they were given that option. But they chose, first up, to play for little Tonga for a few hundred bucks stipend - not a lot, compared to the tens of thousands they would've earned, all the huge support and all the resources that they get when you play for a Tier 1," said Mr Lua.

"So they did this for the jersey, they did this for their passion for their King and country and they did it firstly and most of all for their fans."

Tonga's Rugby League board secretary, William Edwards, told First Up the board had sought to review coach Kristian Woolf's contract and pointed out that under his leadership, the team had lost their last three games.

But Mr Lua says their latest unprecedented victories over the British Lions and current reigning World Champion Australia has put doubts over the team's capability to rest.

"Actually a lot of the reasons why the team had probably lost their previous games was all the friction happening outside of the field. But what the boys have learnt is that put that aside and focus on what they do because the team should never have been dragged in the middle of all of this," said Mr Lua.

"All of that stuff is indicative of problems at a governance level in Tonga and that needs to be sorted out. But for the kiwi community here - we're like - 'we'll let you guys sort that stuff out, we're going to back our boys." 

Now the star players of Tonga's Kau To'a league team and their massive community of fans are setting their sights on a world cup victory. 

Mr Lua says fans are hopeful Tonga will have a genuine chance to win the 2021 World Cup.

"We're a humble little country, we're not going to count our chickens before they hatch but you know, we've got a lot of work to do. It's a long time ahead and Australia will be back. You know Australia, they are the world champions and there's a reason why and we know there's a huge mountain to climb but if anyone can climb it, it's Tonga."