Interview with Talite Vaioleti from Tonga
By Patrick Giffney
As New Zealand prepares to host this year’s Rugby World Cup and welcomes players from all around the globe, the small village of Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales could have their own representative at the finals in the form of Tongan flanker Talite Vaioleti.
In a career that has spanned over 10,000 miles and two continents, Vaioleti now finds himself plying his trade in National League one for the Yorkshire outfit.
Having already represented his country twice as a full international and numerous times for Tonga A, he still has the dream of once again pulling on the Ikale Taki (Sea Eagles) jersey, “It’s a very proud moment for me to represent my country, and something that all young players dream of, and I hope to once again represent my country before the end of my career.”
Hailing from a nation with a population of just over 100,000 people his rugby journey is a remarkable one, “I left Tonga to play for the national team, we travelled to play against France and while I was there I was approached to play for a club side, I was that happy to be given the opportunity to play club rugby in Europe I stayed!!”
He spent just one season with Royan in south western France before being encouraged by fellow Tongans to make the move to England. He signed for Hertfordshire which by his own admission was a big change to what he was used to, “it certainly was different, three of us Tongans staying in a very small, very English village, though did provide some entertainment for the locals, especially turning up to Sunday mass in traditional Tongan dress.”
Everything was different, from the way of life to the condition of the pitches, “Back home most pitches are like tarmac because of the extreme heat, the ground is very course and full of rocks, it makes me laugh when a game is cancelled in England because the ground is too hard, I think the rough conditions in Tonga toughen you up as a player.”
After Hertfordshire he moved on to Jersey, where he enjoyed some of the most successful years of his career so far, enjoying two promotions and a trip to Twickenham as well as being Captain of the team. “I love Jersey, it’s such a friendly club and after marrying a Jersey girl I now consider it my western home.”
Though like all players the powerful Tongan had ambition and wanted the chance to test himself at a higher level, and in June 2010 announced his decision to leave Jersey after three very successful years with the club. “You can only play rugby at a competitive level for so long and I was approaching the big 30, so I knew it was time to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself again, I was hungry to push myself up the levels and learn again.”
So how did he end up in the sleepy village of Wharfedale? Well fellow Tongan Latu Makaafi was currently playing for the Yorkshire club and having been Vaioletis best man it was seen as the ideal move that one Tongan replace another. “Latu encouraged me to come and replace him and play for Wharfedale, he told it was a friendly club and I’d be made to feel very welcome, and he was right.”
“I love quiet places, and I much prefer living in the country than the city, there are actually a fair few Tongans playing rugby up North so I had some friends there so the move made sense.”
In his first season with the club he as a player thinks his game has benefited from the challenge of a more competitive league and believes physically he’s in the best shape of his life. Although the club is currently sitting 11th in the National One table and just six points off the relegation zone Vaioleti believes things have gone well, “As a team I think we’re playing ok at the moment, there’s been some games we should’ve won and equally some successes that we never expected. As player I believe I’ve grown and I’m loving the challenge.”
In terms of international rugby Vaioleti his most recent outing was with Tonga A in the Americas Rugby Championship late last year, the competition was played in Argentina and Chile and proved to be a successful experience, “I enjoyed leading by example for the younger players who’d never been away from Tonga before, we played in a climate very similar to our own and it was like having a little slice of home.”
Along with representing his country one of his other career highlights was being selected to represent the Barbarians against a Forces XV late last year and the chance to experience the management of former England coach Brian Ashton, “I was thrilled, they are a team that is known all over the world and it was a great experience to play for them and score two tries.”
There is no doubt that it is with Tonga where his heart lies, when asked about his career highlights so far and how it felt to represent his country it is clear to see just how much it means to him, “I can’t even describe how it feels, it’s like being on top of the world, it’s something you’ve dreamt of and to achieve that goal is like no other feeling, to be on the pitch singing your national anthem with the whole country behind you is a very emotional feeling.”
If Vaioleti is to achieve his international ambitions he and his Tongan teammates will certainly face a tough test in the southern hemisphere, drawn in Pool A Tonga will come up against the likes of France, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan, a challenge he of course would relish.
For now he is focused on finishing the season strongly with Wharfedale but who knows with a World Cup just around the corner could we see this quiet Tongan from the Yorkshire Dales add one more chapter to this already extraordinary career?