Why Tongan passion is the best thing about the Rugby League World Cup

The crazy passion of Tongan fans is the story of the Rugby League World Cup so far.

The Pacific nation has won every game, including a stunning 28-22 upset of the Kiwis, and on Sunday will play in its first ever semi-final against the team everyone loves to hate (besides the Aussies) - England.

Tongan fans have dominated stadiums. Homes and cars have been decked out with flags. If you can hear cars honking, chances are Tonga’s just won.

“I’ve got flags on my car. My whole family does. Mine’s got one on the bonnet and a couple of small ones on the back windows,” says superfan Mahe Likio.

“I’ve been watching so many Facebook Live videos from friends and families, especially in Auckland … It’s been pretty hectic, eh. We’re a small nation not really recognised in anything except sport. It makes me proud.”

Mahe says his mum, dad and heaps of people he knows have “jumped on the wagon”.

Win or lose against England, he says Tongans will celebrate: “There’s always gonna be a party when Tonga plays. If they lose, we still party. We made it far.”

By beating New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, Tonga became the first “tier-two” nation to beat a “tier-one” nation. The international federation ranks teams into tiers - Australia, England and the Kiwis are the only tier-one teams.

Tongan fans outnumbered Kiwis supporters at the game in Hamilton. FMG Stadium was turned red and white.

After the historic win, Losa Hopoi helped organise a vehicle parade from Lower Hutt to central Wellington. More than 20 vehicles packed with fans made the journey.

“We stopped at a Tongan church on Taranaki Street and we all honked our horns and celebrated until the last people left.”

She’s seen countless stores run out of Tongan flags and supporter gear.

“We’re extremely proud. We’re just a dot on the map and beating New Zealand, who are awesome at rugby union and league, is huge for our people. It’s incredible.”

Losa says the Tongan community both in Wellington and across the country has been going hard fundraising “because the team doesn’t get paid the same as other countries”.

“There’s also been a lot of praying and fasting. We believe that when you fast, it gives people hope and faith that what we’re fasting for comes true,” she says.

Tongan players receive a few hundred bucks for each match they play. Australian players earn more than $10,000.

That’s part of the reason Tongan fans were so stoked when the team’s squad for the World Cup was announced. It included several top New Zealand and Australian-born players like NRL stars Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita who had decided to switch their allegiance back to the Pacific nation.

“To have some of the best players in the world jump on the Tongan team is a big deal. This is the best team we have ever fielded.”

Kotoni Katoa moved his family from Taita in Lower Hutt to Australia about four years ago to support his son Sione’s rugby league career.

Sione, 22, has been getting good minutes at the hooker position for Tonga at the World Cup. 

Kotoni says his success is worth their commitment.

“A few years ago, we asked his club the Penrith Panthers if they thought Sione would get further opportunities because we were struggling financially, and they said he was one of their top talents, so we stayed and he played a few games this year,” recalls Kotoni.

He says the team’s low pay “isn’t fair considering the money that is chucked around by Australia, New Zealand and England”.

“Hopefully seeing how some of the boys like Taumalolo and Fifita have turned their backs on money will change the mindset of the game’s powerful people and persuade them to share the wealth a little bit.”

Kotoni has been to most of Tonga’s games.

“I went to the game when we beat France in 2011 in the Rugby World Cup in Wellington and I thought that would be the wildest the atmosphere would get, but nothing has prepared us for how crazy the support has been over the past few weeks,” he says.

“Before the Samoa game it was raining all morning but the fans didn’t care and were dancing in the street. There were mad convoys of vehicles everywhere - around the world as well - I just saw a video of a convoy in Hawaii.

“If Tongan people anywhere in the world can get together and celebrate, they will.”

Losa is also flying to Auckland for this weekend’s game. She’s even more excited because the Tongan king is expected to attend.

“We went to the Samoa game as well - it’s incredible when all the fans sing a song in our mother tongue and we can all sing together.”

Tongans love going hard for their country, she says. “We go over-the-top for anything.”

“We still remember how our flag-bearer at the Olympics - Pita Taufatofua - made the news when he was shiny and covered in oil. Seeing your people represent on the international stage is awesome.”

The players too have given plenty of kudos to their die-hard fans.

“The support definitely hasn’t been a surprise - we know it’s in the nature of our people - but it’s still overwhelming to see all the people all over the world and it’s definitely inspiring,” said 24-year-old hooker Siliva Havili this week.

Prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho echoed his words: “We’re so grateful to our supporters … seeing the pride of them supporting us gives us a little joy and goosebumps and extra motivation for the games.”

The team’s success hasn’t been without controversy.

Journalism academic at AUT, Richard Pamatatau, last week said he had seen great bias in the news coverage of Pacific fans at the tournament.

His comments came after 53 people were arrested in Otahuhu following Tonga’s win over the Kiwis.

“Journalists need to think about their responsibility in being part of a civil society,” he said.

“If they want to write a story that's going to let the racists come out ... that's great, but we need much better than that. We deserve much better than that.”

After Tonga’s quarter-final win over Lebanon last weekend, Auckland Airport announced it would not allow Tongan fans to welcome the team at its domestic terminal.

The airport said there was no suitable space in the domestic terminal for a large number of fans to gather and greet the team without causing disruption to other passengers and airport operations.

Tongan Advisory Council chair Melino Maka said banning Tongan fans was a double standard, as other team's supporters have historically been welcome at the airport.

“Sometimes it's really hard to read what's behind the decision and leaves us no room but to speculate,” he said.

Tonga’s semi-final against England kicks off at 6pm on Saturday at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium.

Kotoni says he “couldn’t imagine” the scenes if Tonga win.

“It would just be unbelieveable.”