26 December, 2017. A prominent broadcaster in the region says the collective exploits of Tongans around the world are the sporting highlight of the year.
Fauono Ken Laban is a rugby union and rugby league commentator who has worked at world cups in both sports.
He told Koro Vaka'uta of Radio New Zeaamd that the feats of the Tongan rugby league team at the recent world tournament is just one example of the sporting excellence coming out of kingdom.
Fauono states that It's hard not to talk about Tonga. We're talking about a country with a population of 120-odd thousand. We're talking about a Tongan community, where from a New Zealand perspective, I think seven players of Tongan descent represented the All Blacks in 2017.
There are 21 Tongan boys in the NFL, the American football competition, which is regarded as their greatest and most professional of all sporting competitions and of course the Tongan rugby league team, who captured the hearts of everybody. Not only here in New Zealand, but of course around the world. The passion of their supporters.
The decision by two high profile players to make themselves available, Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita. Those two names, Fifita, Taumalolo, in the case of Jason, probably the number one forward in the world from a rugby league perspective, Dally M player of the year, a premiership winning player and the same with Andrew Fifita. Winner of a premiership, over a hundred games in the NRL and he was Dally M prop of the year in 2016.
The moment those boys made that decision, it set off a wave of support of passion that he don't think we have seen in the Pacific to that level and certainly not in New Zealand. For Haumono who has been commentated and travelled extensively around the Pacific, have seen that passion in the supporters many times. But to see it outside of Tonga and outside of Samoa and Fiji, to see it in New Zealand was most certainly one of the highlights of the year for me.
Vaka'uta asked that he had seen it around the islands but it did take a bit of getting used to for 'Joe Bloggs' the average New Zealander and maybe the average New Zealand media as well, that they hadn't seen the likes of these Tongans, this passion when it comes to sporting supporters.
In reponse, Fauono says that he had been to the Pacific Games 2007 in Apia, 2011 in Noumea, New Caledonia, 2015 in Papua New Guinea and just recently I was in Vanuatu for the Pacific Mini Games which were hosted up there in Port Vila. Samoa, Fiji and Tonga and Solomon Islands were the last four teams that got through to the semi finals.
Samoa beat Fiji to win the gold medal and the winner of the bronze medal game was going to secure a place at the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco in 2018. That match was between Tonga and Solomon Islands.
The Samoan and Fiji supporters had arrived early to watch the final, so we had this sight and very early on in the bronze medal game it became apparent, the desire of the Pacific crowd, and we are talking thousands. You have to know, understand and be in that moment and it's absolute replica of what I have seen many times.
The DJ who was running the sound system, he was playing Samoan songs during the Tongan game. The Tongan supporters were singing the Samoan songs. Then he played the Tongan songs and the Samoans and the Fijians were singing the Tongan songs.
Then he played Isa Lei, the Fiji song and the whole stand was singing. It was just magic because in a world where sometimes where intolerance and injustice and unfairness can be a dominant part, particularly when you are a minority like we are in terms of Pacific islanders, to be there and see the celebration and the acceptance and the tolerance and the joy of the colour, the spectacle, the multi-cultural nature.
As I have said, I have seen it many times before but I thought what the Tongan community did for New Zealand was a real example of enlightenment, togetherness, multi-cultural understanding and an appreciation that the world is changing. I just find it ironic that a tiny country like Tonga can do what they did to transform, I hope, large section of the community who maybe would have looked at some aspects of the Pacific island community in somewhat of a negative light.