Sea of red and white welcomes Tonga

(Rugby News Service) Tuesday 6 September 2011
Sea of red and white welcomes Tonga
Tonga captain Finau Maka watches a Maori challenge

AUCKLAND, 6 Sept. - Tonga could be forgiven for thinking Rugby World Cup 2011 was being held in their home country, given their rousing welcome ceremony on Tuesday.

Students from the Edmund Hillary school in Papakura were let out of class to welcome the Tongan team, lining the footpaths, waving flags and balloons while chanting “Let’s go Tonga” as the team bus made its way slowly down the street.

At the Papakura marae, a sea of fans in red and white erupted into cheers as the Sea Eagles arrived.

“I’m speechless,” captain Finau Maka said. “To see all the Tongan people here, it feels like we’re in Tonga. It’s awesome to see.”

Twelve-year-old Richard Mataele struggled to put his excitement into words as his rugby heroes walked by.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t explain it. It’s pretty special. I want to play like Finau. I want to play for Tonga.”

'Go hard and go strong'

The hour-long event was full of Tongan and Maori tradition, prayers and songs, with the Tongan team performing the sipi tau (war dance) for the crowd to thank them for their support.

The cheers were continuous as each member of the team was presented with his official Rugby World Cup cap and as local councillor Calum Penrose urged them to “go hard and go strong”.

For Vise Vakauta, like the majority of New Zealand’s Tongan community, Friday’s opening match against New Zealand will test alliances.

“You know we don’t really want one to win over the other, we want everyone to be friendly,” she said.

“We want Tonga to win but we want New Zealand to win too. It’s tough.”

Despite the divided allegiances, Vakauta said the most important thing come Friday was to be part of the community celebration.

“We help each other, we support our Tongan team,” she said. “I’m so happy to be here to encourage them, to give them energy.”

RNS omg/aa/ig/sg