Tonga the kingdom of rugby talent
A little Island nation of 100,000 people has made such an impact on the international rugby scene. The latest and greatest feat was their solid performance at the 2007 RWC, to say the least they put real fear into South Africa and England in the pool of death. Visiting Tonga it is clear to see this is a nation of natural athletes, tattooed pieces of rugby art walk the streets and any coach on the globe would love to hand pick men like this. As fate would have it this is exactly what is happening for this rugby nation, some of the most obvious examples are current players George Smith and Lesley Vinikola & past greats Jonah Lomu and Willy O.
Speaking with Tongan national coach Quddus Fielea you can sense there is frustration with his role, not in the obvious initial thought that his talents get poached by other nations, but by the fact that he can’t get his hands on his players quick enough and long enough for these competitions. Evidence of this is that in round 4 of the Pacific Nations Cup 1st pick players are just flying in from their overseas club commitments. Playing Samoa they were getting close to full strength and showed a powerful leap in form from the week before, Quddus said “ You saw what we can do when we get our hands on the real team for a month at the RWC, imagine what we could do if we had them together for a couple of months to prepare” His tone and mannerism is far from poor me syndrome, merely speaking reality of his situation and the extra battles they face to be competitive on the international scene.
Looking at the wider picture in Tonga rugby is a plague in the fields at night, the future generation is going at it full steam and talent is oozing as ever in the Kingdom of Tonga. It is a far cry from 1st world nations, there are no scrum machines to be seen, there are no fancy vests and it is good old skins vs t/shirts when practice teams play each other. There are no lights on the fields for evening practices and eventually play winds down to stretches in the dark and the boys all wander off into the wilderness as there are no showers and facilities here either. Rugby is a well supported sport in other ways though, ex players arrive in their old schools to donate fresh meat and vegies for the last meals prior to the big game they have this Saturday. As the youth train a cluster of parents and supporters watch on, even ex national coaches turn up to add their weight to the boys. Fitness looks gruelling and old school style, but the players lap it up and dedication is very high, laughter and fun is also very close as this is the Island way.
The game here is raw and great. Pride and country passion is as high as ever and the most heightened example of this is national captain Nili Latu. He reeks the Tongan way and the world needs players that remember their homelands like this. This is where rugby feelers can keep the world in touch with remote places and offer the world stage for them to perform their god given magic on. In this day in age of big contracts, big money, big thoughts and big heads we need to also remember the small beginnings. These are vital to keep the spirit of rugby alive and maintain the raw beauty of it all. Rugby may have begun in England, but the excitement and its heartbeat comes from the Island world.