By Hamish Bidwell of RNZ

COMMENT:

It's not just rugby's administrators who've noticed the Tonga rugby league team.

New Zealand Rugby tried to tap into the team's phenomenal supporter base by staging a game between the All Blacks and Tonga ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Advertisement

The turnout in Hamilton was fair, but no better than that, suggesting this small sporting revolution has more to do with men such as Jason Taumalolo and Sio Siua Taukeiaho and not just blind allegiance.

Mate Ma'a Tonga, or the Tonga Invitational XIII as they're now known thanks to issues with their national body, are one of the greatest things to happen to sport in New Zealand.

Never mind them beating Australia at Eden Park on Saturday, or Great Britain the week before that. To see a fanbase mobilised from almost nowhere and to watch and hear the way they support their team has been truly incredible.

We don't have a great fan culture here. The good folk from Yellow Fever try to generate a bit of atmosphere at Wellington Phoenix games, otherwise sport in this country is a pretty quiet affair.

Sure, in the halcyon days (or is that daze?) of the Wellington Sevens, a combination of booze and booming music helped people shed their inhibitions and provide a spectacle for the big screen.

But Tonga fans don't rely on props, or the guy on the Public Address system, when their team plays rugby league.

Tonga celebrate their win over Australia. Photo / Photosport
Tonga celebrate their win over Australia. Photo / Photosport

Someone simply starts singing a hymn and everyone else joins in. A hymn! The whole thing's as moving as it is remarkable and it's not been lost on some of our rugby players.

Again, it's not just the results that have made this Tonga rugby league thing so special. Nor is it only the support.

Advertisement

It's the fact that this was built by men who were established internationals with bigger teams who said 'you know what, I'd actually rather play for the nation that best represents me and how I feel and what I believe in'.

A team of true brothers who might not be as talented as the Kiwis or Kangaroos, but who share a culture and a bond that other teams can only imagine.

Andrew Fifita, Daniel Tupou, Michael Jennings all played for Australia, while Will Hopoate was a State of Origin representative.

Others, such as Taumalolo, Taukeiaho, David Fusitu'a, Manu Ma'u, were first-choice members of New Zealand's side.

Premium gold

They all loved their experiences with those teams, and were proud of the achievement, but playing for Tonga became something of a calling.

This is what All Blacks' star Sonny Bill Williams is driving at when he says it might be nice to see Māori or Pacific Island faces on the coaching staff.

It's why, if the stories are to be believed, he's considering playing for Samoa should a move back to rugby league materialise. Another former Kiwi, Manly prop Martin Taupau, has already switched to Samoa.

All Black Ngani Laumape was in the stands when Tonga beat Australia 16-12 at Eden Park on Saturday. The son of Tongan migrants, Laumape has the Kingdom of Tonga seal tattooed on his shoulder and is a former rugby league player himself.

He's also talked of being on tour with the All Blacks in 2017 and how he and team-mate Vaea Fifita spent hours together watching and revelling in Tonga's march to that year's Rugby League Cup semifinals.

Then there's halfback TJ Perenara who has spoken of his "shame" at not being bi-lingual and has now begun a "journey" to learn te reo Māori.

The All Blacks after losing their World Cup semifinal against England. Photo / Photosport
The All Blacks after losing their World Cup semifinal against England. Photo / Photosport

These things are indicative of a cultural awakening that many of our professional rugby and rugby league players are experiencing and one the rest of us would be foolish to ignore.

I've had plenty of advice from people in recent days since the publication of an opinion piece in which I said rugby cannot continue to be a game in which a large proportion of the players are brown and those in coaching and administrative roles are white. At least not if you are a happy and engaged workforce.

First, they put 'opinion' on those things for legal reasons. They're actually just a point of view, designed to get people to read and react.

Rugby and rugby league are businesses. Players are commodities with a limited shelf-life. They accept the game is their job and go about things accordingly.

Increasingly, though, they want their representative football to be from the heart. To, in the truest sense of the word, represent who they are and where they're from.

When Williams says there are a lot of Māori and Pacific Island players in the All Blacks, and that it would be good for the coaching staff to reflect that, he's talking about things like respect and identity. About the background and culture of many of the players being recognised and celebrated.

The coach of Mate Ma'a Tonga, Kristian Woolf, is a white Australian. But, as a slightly incredulous Taumalolo said in Saturday's victory speech, Woolf has empowered and supported the players and allowed them to embrace their heritage despite not being Tongan himself.

The next head coach of the All Blacks doesn't have to be Pasifika and maybe not even the one after that. But New Zealand Rugby does need to make sure the players feel valued and that their cultures are given significance.

If the Tonga rugby league phenomenon has taught us anything, it's that some players will eventually go with their hearts and that huge numbers of fans will follow.

- RNZ