Rugby: Touch wood backs deliver

By Shane Hurndell

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EXPLOSIVE: Ryan Tongia is happy to fit in the backline.
EXPLOSIVE: Ryan Tongia is happy to fit in the backline.

While navigating Brisbane traffic as a courier driver earlier this year Ryan Tongia decided it was time to resurrect his professional rugby career.

"I was hating life. So my wife Rachel [Stephenson, a former New Zealand touch rep from Dannevirke] got in touch with her cousin, Murdoch Paewai, at the Havelock North Rugby Club and the rest is history," Tongia recalled.

"If you had told me at the start of the club season I would be playing with all these Super Rugby heads and All Black Israel Dagg in a Ranfurly Shield challenge this weekend I would have replied that's an out of it suggestion," Tongia said before the Hawke's Bay Magpies flew to Auckland yesterday to prepare for today's challenge against Counties-Manukau at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe.

That statement is a reflection of Brisbane-born Tongia's modesty. To be fair Tongia, the son of Papua New Guinea-born parents, was a handy rugby player before arriving in the Bay despite what he labelled as "a fruit salad background".

"While Tongia is a Niuean name mum is part German and half Chinese," he explained.

He had played four tests for the Papua New Guinea Kumuls rugby league side including one against the Kiwis in Rotorua in 2010. Tongia, 24, had also played league for the Gold Coast Titans at Toyota Cup level and in 2011 for the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in the European Super League, the highlight of his travels to date.

"Because I've changed codes I'm finding the technical side of union challenging. I'm sure Danny Lee [the Magpies assistant coach] gets annoyed with all the questions I'm asking but the entire Magpies squad is an awesome bunch of fellahs and that makes my job easier," Tongia said.

It would be hard to find a Magpies fan who isn't impressed with the progress he is making. In addition to scoring two tries in the Magpies' win against Taranaki last week Tongia made nine carries with an average gain of 10.7m, two line breaks and beat three defenders.

He has no qualms about shifting from fullback to the left wing to allow Dagg to start in his preferred No15 position.

"I'm just grateful to be in the mix and while I enjoy fullback Izzy is the No.1 fullback in the world. I can learn off him and help him get back into the All Blacks playing 23 at the same time," Tongia said.

He pointed out he did a bit of research last week into what the Ranfurly Shield means to New Zealand rugby and Magpies fans.

"It's nicknamed the Log 'o Wood and I'm confident we will be bringing it home. Hopefully we can keep it for the rest of the season."

Tongia has an extra incentive to maintain his hot form. His wife and 5-year-old son Makaio are travelling from Brisbane to be in today's crowd along with Tongia's father-in-law, David Stephenson.

"I usually play good when they are around. The last time was when our Havelock North team beat Taradale 21-18 in the Maddison Trophy round, Taradale's first loss of the season."

Another incentive is to secure his long-term playing future in Hawke's Bay.

"I'm only on a one-season contract with the Magpies at this stage. Hopefully I can do well and secure a more lengthy one which might lead to a Super Rugby contract and then Rachel and Makaio can come home for good."

He is grateful for the support his in-laws David and Lorraine have given him.

"During the club season I worked on their Dannevirke farm, learnt how to drive a tractor and became a drystock farmer. I travelled up to Havelock at night time for trainings and then again on game days.

"I grew up watching league boys switch to rugby with the aim of playing Super Rugby. While I've had few nerves with the switch I keep asking myself why can't that be me ... it's been awesome so far," Tongia said.

When he isn't training or playing rugby Tongia is likely to be found reading, meditating or doing the housework in the flat he shares with Magpies centre Robbie Fruean.

Steelers head coach and former All Black captain Tana Umaga has made three changes to the starting XV used in last Saturday's 29-25 win against Otago, their first defence against an ITM Cup side this season. Captain Tim Nanai-Williams will start at fullback after coming off the bench last weekend, All Black Sevens star Sherwin Stowers moves from fullback to the left wing and Johnny Kawau will start at blindside flanker.

Umaga said his troops are looking forward to the occasion.

"It is a big game and great to be able to play in front of our home crowd. It will be a really good opportunity for some young players to play in such a big occasion and it is up to them to make the most of it," he added.

Provided the wet weather isn't as bad as expected the clash between two star-studded backlines will be a beauty. Worth watching will be the Magpies' midfield pair of Andrew Horrell and Robbie Fruean up against Bundee Aki and Rey Lee-lo, Stowers up against Richard Buckman and Tongia up against the Blues one-game All Black Frank Halai.

Nanai-Williams will have to be marked closely and of course it will be interesting to see how the Steelers defence copes with Dagg who is eager to taste Ranfurly Shield glory for the first time.

MATCH DETAILS

WHO: HB Magpies v Counties-Manukau Steelers.

WHEN: Today, 2.35pm kick off.

WHERE: ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe.

STEELERS: Tim Nanai-Williams (captain), Frank Halai, Ray Lee-lo, Bundee Aki, Sherwin Stowers, Ahsee Tuala, Augustine Pulu, Jordan Taufua, Onosa'i Auva'a, Johnny Kawau, Jimmy Tupou, Ronald Raaymakers, Jarrod Firth, Suliasi Taufalele, Pauliasi Manu.

Susbtitutes, forwards: Sione Anga'aelangi, Sean Bagshaw, Viliami Rarasea, Maama Vaipulu. Backs: Kane Hancy, Michael Stanley, Sam Vaka.

MAGPIES: Israel Dagg, Richard Buckman, Robbie Fruean, Andrew Horrell, Ryan Tongia, Ihaia West, Chris Eaton, Gareth Evans, Brendon O'Connor (captain), Tony Lamborn, Mark Abbott, Michael Allardice, Jason Marshall, Ash Dixon (vice-captain), Brendon Edmonds.

Substitutes, forwards: Ged Robinson, Adrian Barone, Tom Parsons, Trent Boswell-Wakefield. Backs: Ellery Wilson, Jason Shoemark, Matt Berquist.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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