Tongan Darlings of the RLWC 2017

The Rugby League World Cup has all but ended for our Pacific nations. Our final remaining teams exited in the semi-finals with Tonga controversially ousted by England and Fiji going down to Australia. But there’s no denying Tonga has re-ignited the dying flame that was international rugby league. SPASIFIK reporter LAUMATA LAUANO reflects on the highs and lows



Marred only by mainstream media bias, a couple of drunken fights and a controversial decision made by referee Matt Cecchin not to consult the video ref in that last semi-final, the Mate Ma’a Tonga (MMT) emerged as the latest contender for an inspirational sports film about a team of underdogs becoming the talk of the tournament.


There were grudges, as NZ-born Jason Taumalolo (Cowboys) chose Tongan heritage over birthplace- along with Australian-born Andrew Fifita (Sharks) and other NZ-born players; Tui Lolohea (Wests Tigers), Solomone Kata (Warriors), Konrad Hurrell (Titans), Manu Vatuvei (Salford), Manu Ma'u (Eels), and David Fusitu'a (Warriors).


There was a tsunami of red MMT supporters bringing celebration and electrifying fanfare wherever they went, and then there were the underdogs.


Despite not winning their semi-final against England at a sold-out Mt Smart stadium on November 25, the Mate Ma’a Tonga (which means die for Tonga) team came out of the tournament a Rugby League World Cup winner.


Cue the inspirational music.


RLWC 2017 won’t be remembered for who wins this week’s grand-final between Australia and England; instead people will look back and recall a sea of red. 


They will remember the historic match between Tonga and New Zealand at Waikato Stadium on November 11 wherein the tier-two Tongan nation became the first ever to beat a tier-one team. 





That was followed up by Fiji ousting the tier-one nation from the World Cup entirely in the quarter finals.


People will remember that all four Pacific Island nations in the tournament made it through to the quarter finals and not one, but two of them made it through to the semis.


Perhaps they’ll even remember that Samoa made a splash too, by advancing to the quarterfinals despite having won no games in pool play.


The decision of Tongan players to represent their heritage, rather than birthplace (the majority were born in either New Zealand or Australia) for higher pay shook the rugby league world and probably reshaped the 63-year-old event covering 11 tournaments.


That included players like Taumalolo, who turned down earning a five-figure sum to pick up just $30 a day with Tonga to honour his family at the height of his career.


People will remember the Great Tongan Flag Shortage of 2017, as many stores in Auckland sold out with many supporters starting to pre-pay for stock before it arrived.


And of course the games, the easy win over Scotland, the supposed grudge match with Samoa, the historic win against the Kiwis, and the close call with Lebanon in the knockout stage before the controversial loss to England at Mt Smart.




While there was a heavy police presence following that Mt Smart semi-final, both in Onehunga and Otahuhu, the MMT party made its way to the Mangere Town Centre where supporters peacefully revelled in their team making history.


The fans took to the streets of Auckland both on Sunday and Monday to protest Cecchin’s final call and to continue to celebrate their team’s efforts.


And although the call itself won’t be overturned the fans have some consolation in knowing Cecchin has been overlooked as referee for the grand final.


But most importantly MMT supporters will remember they backed a team which drew strength from their support and showed such power of will, to come back from a 14-point deficit in the game against the Kiwis to win 28-22.


And of course, in a game that’s sure to go down in rugby league world cup folklore, how they almost did the same thing against England coming back from nil at half time and scoring the majority of their tries in the last 5 minutes, to only just miss out 18-20.


As the Tongan league team are welcomed home in the Kingdom to be invested with an award of the Royal Orders by King Tupou VI, there’s no denying that Tonga came to the World Cup and conquered, even if they didn’t walk away with the cup.