Rugby community launches rebuilding fund to help Tonga

The Tonga Rugby Union believes sport has a major role to play in the country's ongoing recovery from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Following the disaster in January, Tongan sports stars including Charles Piutau, Malakai Fekitoa and Pita Taufatofua set up fundraising pages to support their homeland.

A star-studded charity rugby game was held in Brisbane last month to raise funds, while Rugby Australia, New Zealand Rugby and broadcasters on both sides of the Tasman are donating $500 per try across the first 10 rounds of Super Rugby Pacific to the Red Cross Pacific Tsunami Appeal.

Tonga Rugby Union CEO Peter Harding said his phone was running hot in the days following the eruption and tsunami, with people from all around the world wanting to help in any way they could.

"I got a lot of calls on the Sunday afterwards from the Northern Hemisphere in the morning when they heard about it. They were offering help and we've worked pretty well together with a lot of organisations to raise money in different areas and try to allocate it to the right areas," he said.

"We've got a small donation that's going through a company called Youth in Union in Brisbane. We've raised money for them to buy containers (of urgent supplies) so we've raised enough for about five or six containers and we're gathering donations to send across at the moment."

The Tonga Rugby Union has also been working with World Rugby and other national bodies to establish long-term funding support for the kingdom's recovery.

"We're starting a rebuilding fund. That will be a trust fund which has a board of trustees that we've put together, including the President of Tonga Rugby and myself and one of the executive committee members of World Rugby and that's just being constructed at the moment," he said.

"That will be a vehicle for large unions and large organisations to put money in so we can rebuild not just rugby facilities but sporting facilities in Tonga. We're hoping that that's a vehicle for the future."

Harding was in Sydney when the volcano erupted in January and managed to speak to his family in Nuku'alofa briefly before the phone line cut-out.

It took another two days before he could hear their voices again and confirm they were all okay and, two months on, he was still trying to get home to his loved ones, after a scheduled repatriation flight from Brisbane was cancelled.

People on the ground have told him disaster agencies have been fantastic in providing key items like food and water but he believed sport could also has a role to play in helping the country get back on its feet.

"At Tonga Rugby Union we can make a difference by raising money to rehabilitate sport and recreation facilities and that's my primary goal at the moment," he said.

"What's needed now is help with physical and psychological health. As the biggest sporting organisation in the country I don't think rugby can just concentrate on rugby.

"What we've got to try and do is work a strategy where we're trying to recover all sporting facilities as much as we possibly can and, it's the people who are telling me, get their mind off what's happened and do something different, rather than sit around waiting for things to happen."

Sporting activities remain on hold in the kingdom for now but Harding said there has been talk of staging a local rugby competition on Tongatapu later in the year.

"We can have plans to play it but it is all going to depend on the government - their reaction to the Covid outbreak and how they handle this Covid outbreak - and also what the health department decides to do in response to the Covid outbreak," he said.

"Potentially they could play rugby (at some point) but there's a lot of water to go under the bridge before they definitely say it's going to be played."

The Tonga men's sevens team will compete at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in June and September's Rugby World Cup Sevens in Cape Town.