A year on, Jason Taumalolo is still surprised by the Tongan league revolution that he has helped to create.

This time last year, Taumalolo's decision to switch back to the country of his parent's heritage for the League World Cup was hotly debated on both sides of the Tasman.

The Auckland-born forward had been a standout for Tonga at the 2013 World Cup, before being selected for New Zealand the following year.

He soon became a cornerstone of the Kiwis – one of the best performers in their memorable 2014 Four Nations triumph – and was expected to be a fixture in the black and white jersey for a decade.


[Read more: Tongan team's popularity is manna from heaven for rugby league]

But that changed when Taumalolo pledged to play in the red jersey, honouring a promise he had made to Tongan coach Kristian Woolf that he would return to play for the Pacific nation while still at his peak.

His decision, along with Andrew Fifita's move to turn down a Kangaroos call-up and instead opt for Tonga, inspired others such as David Fusitu'a and Manu Ma'u to go in the same direction.

An avalanche of hype was followed by a memorable campaign, with sell out crowds, fan hysteria and an historic run to the semi-finals.

Saturday will be the sequel, and if anything the support is even greater, with Tongans flying in from the United States, Australia and planeloads from the Kingdom for the game.

There was a taste of the fever today at Mt Smart Stadium, as around 3,000 fans came to watch the team train, and celebrate the occasion of the upcoming match.

Jason Taumalolo. Photo / Photosport
Jason Taumalolo. Photo / Photosport

"When a few players decided to go back and represent their heritage, we didn't think it would have this much effect on our people," said Taumalolo. "For them to come out in the World Cup and show their support like they did ... I think it just motivated the boys even more to stay with their countries of heritage and represent them more."

"For us it's not about a fairytale, it's all about how happy we are to come back and play for Tonga," added Taumaolo. "It's all about giving back to people, representing them and making them see how proud we are as Tongans and hopefully make everyone else proud."


Given Taumalolo's standing in the sport – he won the Dally M medal in 2016 and is widely recognized as the best forward in the game – he was viewed as the catalyst for others to prioritise Tonga, but the ever humble Cowboys lock downplays his influence.

"A lot of people talk about my decision but it was a team decision," said Taumalolo. "A few of the boys made the decision too to come back and play for Tonga and that's what it is all about. Too many people have taken it out of proportion that I made the decision. I think everyone just made the decision themselves to come back and represent Tonga. Me and Andrew [Fifita] are just some of the names that made the decision to turn but there are obviously more than two of us."

However, Taumalolo has helped to spark a league boom in Tonga, with a national competition started (the Jason Taumalolo Cup) in his honour.

"Having a competition being named after me pretty special," said Taumalolo. "Hopefully rugby league is growing in Tonga and we can see future league players come back and represent Tonga."

Taumalolo also downplayed thoughts that Australia might be vulnerable, after their surprise 24-22 loss to the Kiwis last Saturday night.

"They are a new group of boys, the next generation of Kangaroos," said Taumalolo. "They might have had a few lapses [on Saturday], but don't get me wrong they are still number one in the world. They are all game breakers, all special in their own way so we will have our hands full on Saturday."