Tonga in need of sponsorship to continue playing in Oceania League Cup

The Chair of the Tonga Advisory Council says it's exploitation that Tongan fans continue to bring huge profits to New Zealand Rugby League while Tonga's National Rugby League walk away with nothing.

Last weekend Mate Ma'a Tonga fans packed out Mt Smart Stadium once again but the team are now left in need of sponsorship to continue playing at the Oceania League Cup.

Melino Maka, says Tonga's NRL currently only have enough funding to pay for half of the two-week preparation period where the players will be training together in New Zealand before in the lead up to their next game in October.

Mr Maka has been working to coordinate permanent sponsorship for the team which he says is desperately needed.

"In October the team need to be here for two weeks before the match in order for them to prepare but their costs are picked up for only a week before the match," explained Mr Maka.

"So for the other week - Mate Ma'a Tonga have to find some resources to cover that cost. That's why sponsorship is critical."

Normally sponsors come on for each match to help support Tonga's NRL team but Mr Maka says he's hoping to help relieve pressure off team management by securing a long term sponsor.

"Stability is important from the commercial, community and team perspective. We wanted to take the worry away not only from the team management but also from the Tongan Rugby League so that Mate Ma'a Tonga fans are assured the team are taken care of."

The Chair of Tonga's NRL, George Koloamatangi said that in the recent match between Mate Ma'a Tonga and the Kiwis, the Tongan players were paid $2500 each by the Rugby League International Federation which was then topped up by the Tongan government to $5000.

First Up understands players were also given a $600 allowance for the week they were here.

Thanks to a contribution from the Tongan government this year, it's more than what players have been paid for matches in the past but it still meant that Tonga's NRL could only afford to bring over one player from the UK for last weekend's match against the kiwis. 

"They're at the mercy of some of the match sponsors they currently have and whatever's given to them by the NRL or NZRL. But I just think basically it's fundamentally flawed because Mate Ma'a Tonga, as a team, they also bring their fans with them," said Mr Maka.

Mr Maka said he believed both the rugby union and league organisations used the tier system to discriminate against the smaller Pacific Island countries' teams.

"I think that we're now in an era where we actually fight for women's rights and fair pay in sports and we need to pay special attention to fair pay for a team like Mate Ma'a Tonga because all the games they play, they draw a huge crowd and they make those matches viable."

Mr Maka understands that no profits from tickets sold at stadium matches where Mate Ma'a Tonga have played go to Tonga. 

"We already know what happened with last year's takings," said Mr Maka referring to profits made from the sell-out stadium match between MMT and Australia's Kangaroos.

"The money generated from that match helped to subsidise the Kiwis and Kangaroos game that was held a week prior to Tonga's match against Australia."

Stadium seats for that match were only half-filled in comparison to the sell-out match between MMT and the Kangaroos the next week.

Mr Maka said the NRL and NZRL used threatening tactics against Tonga's NRL.

"They said if you don't agree with this (profits of the match going to the NZRL) then Australia isn't going to play Tonga," said Mr Maka

"The former chair said to me, Tonga didn't get anything from that game. But the narrative that was used was that if Tonga was going to ask for anything, Australia wasn't going to play."

Mr Maka said the tactics are bullying.

"I think that we shouldn't be having that type of bullying in sport at that level because Rugby League needs Mate Ma'a Tonga in order to get the crowd at the gate. At the end of the day it's a commercial decision."

Despite feeling that Mate Ma'a Tonga are being exploited, Mr Maka said the team's players and Tonga's NRL are well aware of pay and profit issues, but the decision to play comes down to their pride in Tonga and their love for their fans.

"I want to congratulate the Kiwis, they deserved to win," said Mr Maka.

"I think now it's critical for us to look for a potential long term sponsor for Mate Ma'a Tonga to help them continue."

Mr Maka added that many in the community were unhappy with the way DUCO ran promotions for last weekend's match with only a couple of hundred fans turning up to the MMT fan day on Monday compared to the thousands that turned up for last year's fan day which was led by community leaders. 

Mr Maka was also critical of the way the National Anthem was performed - Tonga's anthem is usually sung by an artist selected by Tongan community leaders.

"The decision by DUCO to get a quartet to sing the national anthem was wrong and it was an absolute embarrassment. To be standing there and you can't sing the national anthem because the tune is out. That's not the tune of our anthem."

Mr Maka also said while fans are normally known to belt out hymns and Tongan songs during matches, they felt silenced during most of last weekend's game while other songs were played during most of the match.

"To me, DUCO made up their mind with how they wanted to do everything without accepting help and support offered to them by the community. Organisers have to appreciate the fan involvement in part of the Mate Ma'a Tonga phenomena - because the two go hand in hand," said Mr Maka who believes DUCO or NZRL is in need of a cultural advisor.

"I hope that the next two games for Mate Ma'a Tonga are actually handled better than this because there are a lot MMT fans who stick with Tonga but were not happy with the way last weekend's game was handled."