By EUGENE BINGHAM
The arrest of a Tongan MP over an immigration scam has raised questions about whether a rugby tour was a set-up to smuggle players into New Zealand.
Etuate Lavulavu faces charges in the United States over alleged involvement in a scheme to help Tongans become American citizens.
As president of the Vava'u rugby sub-union, he helped to organise the Tongan rugby trip which ended last month with half the team on the run from New Zealand immigration officials.
Thirteen of the players have three days to return to Tonga voluntarily, or face deportation. Another player was granted a six-month extension to his visa on the day the team were due to leave.
A Herald inquiry has established that the 13 have no intention of handing themselves in.
Some are working and are believed to be attending a South Auckland church. Others have scattered around the country.
A source close to the team said the players wanted to remain in New Zealand to have a better life.
The main point of the rugby trip was to stay, he said. A spokesman from the Tokaikolo Church in Mangere said the Government should let them become citizens. He denied knowing where they were.
The team from Tonga's northern Vava'u group of islands arrived in New Zealand on August 8. Originally, they wanted to bring a larger party than the 30 who travelled to New Zealand but they were knocked back by immigration officials.
Lavulavu, an outspoken MP who has called for New Zealanders to be banned from Tonga and described Herald journalists who have reported on Tonga as "white trash", made arrangements for the tour.
He was arrested in Salt Lake City this month and charged with 26 counts of fraud. The case relates to forged birth certificates and other documents used to help Tongans obtain US citizenship.
He has pleaded not guilty and is expected back in court in December.
According to Salote Lilo, an immigration consultant who helped with the rugby team's visa application, a member of Lavulavu's staff lodged the original application. None of the players was interviewed by immigration officers.
The team manager, Sioeli Tonga, signed the group's visa and was warned of his responsibility to ensure all players returned.
Auckland Rugby official David Syms, who arranged matches for the team, said that on the morning of their first match, Mr Tonga asked where they could get jerseys as they had no gear.
The team played five games, their best result a close loss to the Auckland under-19 open team.
Sione Takataka, the minister of a Tongan congregation in Hamilton where they played two games, said the Waikato Tongan community held a concert to raise $9000 for them.
"I think people here still encourage them to go back, otherwise the doors in the future will be affected for others," he said.
But the spokesman for Tokaikolo Church said the team would make good citizens. "I wish them well."
He said people should not forget the case of overstayer Willie Ofahengaue who became a Wallabies star after being blocked from returning to New Zealand.
The spokesman said he did not know whether the team had plotted to overstay before they arrived.
The team arrived for their return Royal Tongan Airlines flight on September 8. After they were checked in, Mr Tonga returned their passports - a move described as unusual by sources in the Tongan community.
Mr Tonga was on the flight when it was discovered 14 players had failed to pass through Customs.
A spokesman for the Immigration Service said that authorities could not touch the overstayers until next Tuesday. After then, they could be deported and banned from returning for five years.