Thu, Nov 01, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Tonga looking to ride the wave of World Cup success


Tonga players wave to the crowd at the end of their World Cup Pool A match against England at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on Sept. 28.


While many professional coaches from rugby's big guns are probably sunning themselves on a quiet beach after the World Cup, Quddus Fielea is back at his desk at the Tonga Water Board.

Little fancied and impoverished Tonga, with a population of 105,000 and around 10,000 registered players, won the hearts of rugby fans everywhere at the World Cup.

They beat the US and South Pacific rivals Samoa and gave eventual champions South Africa the fright of their lives before going down 30-25.

Another brave performance in a 16-point loss to England proved they could mix it with the best despite a lack of money, and ensured the team returned home as heroes.

The signs going into the tournament had been ominous. Their Australian coach, Adam Leach, had left in March to be replaced by water engineer Fielea and infighting had seen the Tonga Rugby Union split into rival factions.

But on their return from France, the team rode from the airport towards the capital Nuku'alofa in the back of an open truck, mobbed at every village they passed by fans wearing the national colors of red and white.

The journey took nearly three hours instead of the usual half-hour.

"The team were just like rock stars, you know," Fielea said.

He put Tonga's strongest ever showing down to a rediscovered national pride which united the team's 22 overseas-based professionals and eight local amateurs.

"One of the things I tried to do was to make them proud again to be Tongans," he said.

He also told them they could unite Tonga in the way the country's rival political factions had been unable to following riots in Nuku'alofa last year which killed eight and burned down much of the central business district.

"Probably this is the last chance we have to unite the whole country. It's all on us to do that for Tonga," he told them. "Rugby is the only chance."

Watching a Nuku'alofa senior club game match illustrates both the strengths of Tongan rugby and the obstacles to building on the World Cup success.

At a park near Nuku'alofa's port, Marist coach John Edwards urges on his team against rivals Kolomotu'a on a rough, unevenly grassed field.

"The Tongans' physiques are amazing, they are so strong and powerful but the technical skills are not so good, their handling lets them down sometimes," Edwards said later.

A big sidestep often means a Tongan player is avoiding a hole dug by foraging pigs, rather than a tackler.

"We have no tackle bags or other training equipment, there is one scrum machine on the island which is moved around the different clubs," Edwards said.

Tongan Rugby Union chief executive Siosaia Fonua has his strategy for capitalizing on the World Cup pinned on the wall of the tiny cottage painted in national colors which serves as the national headquarters.

"This is where it all happens," he said, waving his arm over his domain.

He said much depends on Tonga itself but help from the rich rugby nations and the International Rugby Board (IRB) is also necessary.

The IRB has in the last two years started a program aimed at improving the standard of Pacific rugby.

It has in the last two years established a local high-performance unit, an inter-island competition between teams from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji and the Pacific Nations Cup.

The Cup pits the three Pacific national teams against Japan, Australia A and from next year the Maori All Blacks, who will take the place of the Junior All Blacks.

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