For some, it is just a game.

But for fans of the Tongan league team, the sport has turned into a passionate display of support and celebration for their favourite sons.

Tattooist Geoff Siale Thomas, of West Auckland, is among the many die-hard fans celebrating big.

After Mate Ma'a Tonga's thrilling 28-22 win over the Kiwis in their Rugby League World Cup pool match on Saturday, the 24-year-old was so impressed he decided to paint his white van red in honour of the historic victory.


"After the game, I went straight down to my local Warehouse and bought some spray paints and started painting my van," Thomas said.

"There were some strange looks."

Tongans are always big supporters, he said, but that particular game - in which the team fought back in the second-half - had ignited something more among fans.

"Straight up, I was crying in the last few minutes. It was just one big emotional rollercoaster, especially after that half-time 16-2 score.

"The boys needed a miracle and they provided."

The involvement of some of the sport's biggest names, including stars Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, has also helped to get people not only taking more notice of the Cup tournament but also backing the boys full-heartedly.

Seeing big-time players choose to play for their country of heritage rather than secure spots in teams that guaranteed a big pay packet had inspired young people, Thomas said.
"I've got a cousin coming through the grades and he's sort of making that call now that the goal is not so much to play for the Kiwis, but to play for Tonga.

"For someone like him and others out there ... seeing the likes of Fifita and Taumalolo playing for Tonga, there's just something that hits a certain place in the heart.

"It's something money can't buy, it's something that all the flash gears can't provide.

Photo shared on Twitter showing Tongans watching the NZ vs Tonga game in a village in Tonga. Photo / Isi Fatani
Photo shared on Twitter showing Tongans watching the NZ vs Tonga game in a village in Tonga. Photo / Isi Fatani

Seeing Jason there with his parents and his family and stuff - that's what it's all about."

Organisers of the tournament were yesterday in discussions with members of the Pacific community about setting up fan zones, particularly in Auckland.

The calls for dedicated fan areas came after several arrests were made and incidents of disorder in parts of South Auckland.

Thomas acknowledged there were a few people who had spoiled things for others, but he said more could have been done for fans earlier on in the competition.

"It's a starting point but I think it's a bit too late. Maybe next time they could do something that starts early in the day and finishes earlier."

Meanwhile, celebrations in Tonga have also been huge. In the capital, Nuku'alofa, cars lined the streets after the team's matches.

A photo circulating on social media also provided a unique window into island life - and the motivation for players to choose to play for the motherland, Thomas said.

The image shows a large group of people gathering around a small television inside a hut made out of corrugated iron. A young boy wearing red stands behind an elderly man in a wheelchair, while others sit on the ground outside.

"They're the people that the boys are playing for and representing. Those people back home," Thomas said. "Words don't do it justice. There's just a feeling of euphoria in your heart."

As one dedicated fan, using the hashtags #humble and #Tonga, put it on Twitter: "This simple pic made me so teary."