World Cup Wednesday: Tonga will be ready to lift their nation this Autumn

David Fusitu'a on the attack

Much was made when Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita switched allegiance from New Zealand to Tonga in the build up to the 2017 World Cup.

Their decision grabbed the headlines, but it was a gang of five who made the transition, Rhinos’ new winger David Fusitu’a one of the others, alongside Sydney Roosters’ goal-kicking prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho and now Hull’s Manu Ma’u 

Auckland-born, Fusitu’a twice played for the Kiwis in 2016, scoring two tries against Scotland in a notorious Four Nations draw at an inhospitable Derwent Park.

Earlier that year he had played full back for the Mate Ma’a in a mid season Test with Samoa, but was expected to be in the New Zealand ranks again for the last World Cup such was his form with the Warriors.

“Although a lot of us were born in either New Zealand or Australia, we had pretty strong connections back to our homeland,” he says.

“My parents were both born in Tonga, so it was a sense of giving back to them and the sacrifices they’ve made for us as kids at the time to give us a bit of a life and doing the best for us with what they had, so it was pretty cool to do that and represent them and all our families back in Tonga.

“We don’t have too much back home, but what we do we are grateful for.”

The blockbusting winger was in superb form as Tonga shook the tournament, posting five tries in it including a memorable hat-trick the 28-22 win over New Zealand in Hamilton.

It took them to a never to be forgotten, controversial semi final with England at Mount Smart Stadium, dominated by the rapturous red and white hymn-singing Tongan fans, a last-gasp Fifita try ruled out which saw his side go down 20-18.

He’s in no doubt that they can match those exploits in 2022.

“I definitely feel like it’s possible to emulate that. There is a lot of talent running around with Tongan heritage and if the boys come with the same attitude, or even better, than we did five years ago, we can go a long way towards making that step further. 

“It all starts with attitude and making sure we stay professional in our camps, just the little things go a long way for us having a good campaign.”

Although injured and missing it, Tonga followed that World Cup adventure by producing what was described as ‘one of the greatest performances in rugby league history’ in 2019, when beating Australia 16-12 in Auckland in front of over 25,000 fans at Eden Park, coming from six points down at the break.

For this World Cup, they will be based in St Helens where Agnatius Paasi and new Saints signings Will Hopoate and ex-Rhino Konrad Hurrell, along with Tongan head coach Kristian Woolf, are plying their trade.

In the run up to the tournament, the mid-season international over here will see England again face the Combined Nations All Stars, with proceeds from the sale of their unique shirt going to help the victims of the recent tsunami which struck the island nation, after the underwater eruption of the Hunga Tonga volcano.

“I’ll definitely put my hand up for it if my form warrants being picked, I know there are a lot of good players from outside England playing over here and if I’m lucky enough to get chosen, I’d be glad to play.

“I’ve a lot of family back there that I was worried about and obviously it’s been a sad time for our little nation. Everyone was lucky to come away with their lives but, from what I hear, a lot of the land and the agriculture was wiped out.

“It’s cool to see the support for them and hopefully they’ll get more help on the way soon.”

With family and brotherhood key values for Tonga, Fusitu’a reckons that the tragedy will act as further inspiration come the late autumn.

“I definitely think there will be added motivation and a further emotional factor to it and that can only be a good thing, if anything, for our team moving forward.

“I’m looking forward to it, there’s a lot more competition for places in the team so I’m hoping to have a big year and put my best foot forward.”

You can buy tickets for all three of Tonga’s pool games now at rlwc2021.com. On Tuesday 18th October they face Papua New Guinea at the Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens before returning to the same venue to play Wales on Monday 24th October. Their final pool game sees them head to the North East to play the Cook Islands on Sunday 30th October at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium.