Tonga first took to the field in a Rugby League match back in 1986 when the then New South Wales Rugby League invited a team of locals to take part in the inaugural Rugby League Pacific Cup.
The event was the third Pacific Cup coordinated by the NSWRL and was the first time nations like Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Tokelau and the Cook Islands were invited to participate.
Held in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, the Tongan national were grouped with Western Samoa and Tokelau, who they defeated 34 – 16 and 26 – 22 respectively.
The two wins saw Tonga qualify for the tournament finals were they lost 27 – 18 to eventual winners, the Aotearoa (New Zealand) Maori. Tonga would meet Samoa again for a third place play off match, but this time the Samoans would run out 46 – 4 victors.
Following the success of the Tongan side, moves were made to establish a local competition with competitions formed around major regional centres, including Nuku'alofa.
Interest in the sport would continue to grow over the following seasons, with a National competition formed in 1988. Tonga would again feature in a Pacific Cup in 1988 in Samoa, this time finishing third before hosting their first international tournament in 1990.
Despite having home ground advantage, the Tongan side would again fail to reach the tournament final, with the team once again knocked out by the Maori side.
In 1992 the Pacific Cup headed to Auckland, New Zealand with the event now featuring 10 teams. The event proved to be Tonga’s best yet, with the Mate Ma’a Tongan side recording victories over Niue, Cook Islands, Fiji and the New Zealand Maori to meet Toa Samoa in the tournament final.
After a great lead up to the final, Tonga were cruelly denied their first ever Pacific Cup title after going down 18 – 14 to Samoa in double extra time.
Tonga would finally claim their first Pacific Cup title two years later in Suva, Fiji, after defeating the Bati 34 – 11 in the tournament final.
Following improved performances in the international arena, Tonga was invited to take part in their first ever World Cup in 1995.
Grouped with New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in the tournament, Tonga was expected to struggle in their first ever World Cup, however almost created one of the biggest upsets in world sport in their opening game, going down 25 – 24 to New Zealand in Warrington, before securing a draw 28-all draw against the Kumuls in Hull.
Tonga would take part in the Pacific Challenge in 1996 and Pacific Cup in 1997, with less than desirable results before being given the opportunity to take part in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
Based out of France, Tonga started their World Cup campaign with a convincing 66 – 18 win over South Africa before losing to France 28 – 8 and Papua New Guinea 30 – 22 in their pool.
It would be four years before Tonga’s next big international tournament, the Pacific Rim Challenge held in Auckland. Tonga again kick started the tournament in impressive style, recording a 56 – 6 win over Fiji before losing 18 – 10 against the Cook Islands to fail to reach the tournament final.
In 2006, the Tongan national team was invited to qualify for the 2008 Rugby League World Cup and a Federation Cup competition held in the United Kingdom and France. Tonga secured wins over the Cook Islands and Samoa in the qualifiers, meaning the nation qualified for the World Cup despite a 30 – 28 loss to Fiji.
In the Federation Cup, Tonga got revenge on the Chanticleers, recording a 48 – 10 victory over the French before challenging England in both the tournament group stages and final (40 – 18 and 32 – 14 were the respective scores).
After strong performances in 2006 and 2007, Tonga was expected to be the one qualifier from Group C at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup, and kick started their campaign with a 22 – 20 win over Ireland at Parramatta. In their second game, the Mate Ma’a side would face Samoa at Penrith, losing 20 – 12, setting up the opportunity for the Irish to qualify for the main tournament finals after they recorded a surprise 34 – 16 win over Samoa the following week.
Disappointed at missing out on progressing from the group stages, Tonga did not hold back in their 7th place playoff game against Scotland, running out convincing 48 – 0 winners in Rockhampton.
The Pacific Cup would return to the Rugby League calendar again in 2009, however Tonga would lose both their group games against PNG and Fiji, and would then have to wait until 2013 for their next major Rugby League series.
2013 was a mixed year for the Tongans, with the Mate Ma’a side recording a convincing 36 – 4 victory over Samoa in Sydney to kick start the year, before failing against Scotland in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, to again miss out on qualifying for the tournament final.
The next four years have unfortunately been not the most successful for the Tongans, with only one win (World Cup Qualifier versus the Cook Islands) in their past four outings.
Despite the losses, Tonga will be expected to do a lot more than make up the numbers at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Rugby League has been played domestically in Tonga since 1986 with the competition predominately based around the main island of Tongatapu.
Tonga has run a semi-professional national competition since 1988, the Tongan National Rugby League Cup, which features on average around twenty teams split into two divisions.
Grand Finalists for 2016 were the Ha’akame Broncos and Vaini Doves.
The Tonga National Rugby League, in conjunction with the National Rugby League, run competitions from juniors right up to open age football.
National Team Stats
Moniker: Mate Ma’a Tonga
Colours: Red and White
Coach: Kristian Wolf
First Test: Tonga 34 d. Western Samoa 16 – Rarotonga, Cook Islands 1986
Best World Cup Result: Group Stages (1995, 2000, 2008, 2013)
Duane Mann: Duane, part of the famous Mann family in New Zealand, represented Tonga in their inaugural Pacific Cup entry back in 1986 when he was still playing for the Glenora Bears in the Auckland Rugby League. Following an impressive performance for the Mate Ma’a Tongan side and for the Bears, Mann moved to England in 1989 where he would play over 100 games for Warrington. At the same time of his move to England, Mann was selected for the Kiwis, who he would play 24 consecutive tests for and captain in the 1994 season, before being surprisingly dropped heading into the 1995 World Cup. After being dropped, Mann switched his allegiances back to Tonga, playing for the nation in the 1995 and 2000 World Cups.
Lesley Vainikolo: Lesley Vainikolo would be one of the most famous Tongan Rugby League players never to play for Tonga. Born in Nukuʻalofa, Vainikolo would make his professional debut in 97 for the Canberra, where he would amass 140 points from just 68 appearances for the Raiders. In 2002 Vainikolo headed north to Bradford where he became a cult hero, amassing almost 600 points for the Bulls from just 152 appearances, and would play a significant role in two Super League premierships and three World Club Challenge victories. Injury unfortunately prevented Vainikolo from earning anymore than 12 caps for the Kiwis, before he moved across to Rugby Union in 2008, earning 5 caps for the English national team.
Fuifui Moimoi: A cult hero in the game, Moimoi is still an outstand chance of playing for Tonga in 2017 after signing a contract to play for the Toronto Wolfpack this year. Born in Nukuʻalofa, Moimoi made his professional Rugby League debut for the blue and gold of Parramatta in 2004, where he went on to play 201 games before moving to Leigh in the United Kingdom. Moimoi has earned over his representative career 9 caps for the Mate Ma’a Tongan side, and 12 for the New Zealand Kiwis.
Ones to Watch
Heading into the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, lets look at some of the players who will be integral to the success of the Mate Ma’a Tongan side in the upcoming tournament.
Tony Williams: The imposing second rower made his return to the Tongan national team in 2016, eight years after making his debut in the Mate Ma’a jersey, and will be a welcome addition in a strong Tongan forward pack.
Sika Manu: Captain for the Mate Ma’a Tongan national side for the past two years, former Storm and Panthers second rower, Sika Manu, will complete an impressive forward pack for the Tongans at World Cup 2017.
Konrad Hurrell: Tofoa born Hurrell has found a new lease of life in the NRL since making the move to the Gold Coast from Auckland in 2016. A fast and powerful centre, Hurrell is a proven finisher and will be expected to cause plenty of headaches for opposing teams at this year’s World Cup.
World Cup Group Stages
Drawn in Pool B, Tonga should only need to record at least one victory in order to qualify for their first ever World Cup Finals and will come into the tournament knowing that they are more than capable of beating both Scotland and Samoa based upon past results.
Tonga holds an 1 win and 1 loss record against the Bravehearts, after meeting them in both the 2008 and 2013 Rugby League World Cups, whilst when it comes to facing Samoa, the head to head between the two nations is against relatively even.
Unfortunately for Mate Ma’a Tonga, their previous performances against New Zealand aren’t as favourable. Despite losing by only one point in the last World Cup clash between the two nations, Tonga has been on the wrong end of three last score lines against the Kiwis in 1999, 2008 and 2009 (74 – 0, 56 – 8 & 40 – 24).
The Tongans will have to draw upon the inspiration of former players like Duane Mann if they wish to repeat their 1995 performance.
W 1 – D 0 – L 1
Purchase Tickets to Tonga v Scotland in Cairns on 29/10/2017
W 9 – D 0 – L 10
Purchase Tickets to Tonga v Samoa in Hamilton on 04/11/2017
Vs New Zealand
W 0– D 0 – L 4
Purchase Tickets to Tonga v New Zealand in Hamilton on 11/11/2017
Written by Steve Birchall, RLWC2017 Contributor