The South Pacific archipelago of Tonga, known as the Friendly Islands after the reception given to Captain James Cook in 1773, took up the sport of Rugby League in 1986. Within two years a domestic competition had been formed which now boasts seventeen clubs and over 2,000 players across the three main islands of Tongatapu, Vava’u and Ha’apai.
On the international scene the Tongans have been making waves for over two decades but lost their first match 40-30 against Samoa in 1988. Tonga very nearly crashed onto the World Cup stage in spectacular style. In the 1995 Rugby League World Cup they ran New Zealand agonisingly close in their opening pool match at Warrington losing 25-24. Two days later a 28-28 draw with Papua New Guinea left them a respectable second in their pool.
Five years later in the 2000 World Cup they once again started brightly with a 66-18 demolition of South Africa before defeats to Papua New Guinea and France saw them exit the tournament.
Eight years later in Australia the Mate Ma’a Tonga, as they are nicknamed, started their World Cup campaign with a bang after pipping Ireland 22-20 but a 20-12 defeat to Samoa in Penrith put paid to their chances of progression. They eventually clinched 7th position after a 48-0 play-off win over Scotland.
Like nearby Samoa and Fiji, Tonga has become a veritable production line for Rugby League talent with established names including Tevita Vaikona, Israel Folau, Lesley Vainikolo and the evocatively named FuiFui Moimoi cutting their Rugby League teeth on Tongan shores.
Red and White