Tongan rugby fans “are getting warm” as the ’Ikale Tahi (Sea Eagles) prepare for their Rugby World Cup opening match against world No. 1 Ireland in Nantes, France, on Saturday, captain Sonatane Takulua said.
The 32-year-old scrumhalf knows this because they have apparently started the by-now-familiar ritual of painting his name on to vehicles and property in his home village, Lapaha.
Whether there are any vehicles or houses left for his name to be painted on remains to be seen as they did this prior to the 2015 and 2019 editions.
“They were hot back then,” Takulua said on Tuesday. “Then you know our people when they are hot they are hot but when they are cold they don’t know where they are at... But the feeling is coming back.”
“Supporters in Tonga and all over the world are getting warm now, as it is close to our first match and I think they are still doing that, painting the cars a lot,” he added, grinning.
Tonga have appeared at every World Cup apart from 1991, and recorded a famous pool win over eventual finalists France in 2011.
Despite never reaching the knockout stages, passion for the team and the sport remains high, as assistant coach Zane Hilton discovered.
“There is great support in Tonga,” the Australian said. “When we left there were individual floats for each player from their own village taking them to the airport. It was like carnival.”
“To feel the support and love coming into this tournament was very moving for me,” Hilton said.
“Heaven knows what it was like for you guys,” he added, rubbing Takulua’s shoulder.
The Tongans have arguably their strongest squad this time round, having been able under eligibility rules to select players with Tongan heritage who have played for other countries.
Former New Zealand stars Charles Piutau and Malakai Fekitoa are amongst those who now wear the red of Tonga.
However, Hilton said that while they bring a lot to the squad in terms of top tier experience and skills, the Tongans have not sacrificed their identity.
“We represent Tonga, we do it a Tongan way and that is a really important thing as a group,” Hilton said. “They [the ones who played for other nations] bring excellence but we are ’Ikale Tahi we do it our way.”
“Sonatane has over 50 caps experience, which is the equivalent of 100 for a top-tier nation, which is some achievement, and that legacy is a really important part of this group,” he said. “Those guys are very much about adding new ways of doing things, but it is really important to keep that legacy of who we are — the ’Ikale Tahi part.”
Hilton has coached in Australia and Japan, but he said the Tongans have touched him in a way he has not experienced elsewhere due to one particular human quality.
“Humility, which I believe is an incredibly important part of Tongan culture,” said Hilton, who joins the Queensland Reds coaching staff after the tournament.
“For me this is the greatest coaching experience I have ever had and I have been lucky enough to have a number of jobs around the world,” he said.
“With them there is humility across the board and the whole group expresses itself,” Hilton said. “I feel like I take more from the experience than I give to the experience. I certainly get more out of it than I give.”
Takulua — labeled by Hilton as “an absolute warrior who leads from the front” — said the support they received on their departure “gave them a boost” to take into the Irish match.
He also made a bold prediction.
“It was awesome going through all the villages to the airport,” Takulua said. “The record so far for a parade took four hours, we will beat that when we return after the World Cup.”
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