A chorus of thousands belting out the well-known waiata ‘Tutira Mai Nga Iwi’ welcomed the Tonga’s national rugby league team at the Manukau Vodafone Events centre last night.
It was a kiwi welcome for Mate Ma’a Tonga and a clear sign the Tongan tide is back.
Thousands of fans dressed in red packed out the stadium for the first of two public events before the 29-strong Mate Ma’a Tonga squad go head to head for the first time with world champions the Kangaroos at Mt Smart Stadium on 20 October.
Waiting eagerly at the front of the stage with her siblings was 13-year-old Ana Malini.
“I feel happy and excited to see the MMT players,” she said. “They’re my number one team. So if they win, I’ll feel really happy but if they lose I will still support Tonga no matter what. I’m really proud of them.”
Last year, thousands of Mate Ma’a Tonga fans filled the airport to greet the players on arrival and caused widespread congestion on nearby roads.
Last night’s stadium event was organised by Auckland Council’s events and tourism agency ATEED group to avoid a repeat of the airport chaos and to provide a safe space for the Tongan community to celebrate.
Community leader Alisi Tatafu said the support from Mate Ma’a Tonga fans was fantastic.
“We’ve just responded to the community and what the community want and the community wanted a safe, friendly, kids friendly, family friendly environment,” she explained.
“We needed to come here – this was like the perfect venue.”
It’s a hugely anticipated match, after Tonga missed a showdown with Australia last year when they lost to England due to a controversial call on the last play.
Mate Ma’a Tonga captain Sika Manu said the team was looking forward to their first clash with the world champions.
“We’re very confident we can get the job done and like I said we just have to prepare as well as we can and then take it out onto the field on Saturday.”
Warriors winger David Fusitu’a, who recently won the NRL’s top try scorer award, said he never thought this match would happen.
“I obviously didn’t think that we’d get another chance until I guess the next World Cup but I’m really excited that the people behind the scenes made it happen for us and I’m really really stoked to get going.”
Fans have put out a call on social media for Australian-born Andrew Fifita to lead the team’s traditional war cry, the Sipi Tau, on the field when they face the Kangaroos.
While flattered, the Cronulla Shark prop wasn’t so sure how that would go down.
But his interview with RNZ was unexpectedly disrupted when his pants were pulled down by one of the players in a cheeky prank.
Konrad Hurrell who plays for the Gold Coast Titans was quick to point the finger. “It was Tevita Pangai!” he claimed laughing.
“Pretty much everyone’s got a plan, so you’ve got to have four eyes when you come into camp with these boys!”
The Mate Ma’a Tonga squad will go into a 10-day team camp, leading up to the Test.
(Source:Radio New Zealand)