Local free-to-air television has replayed the Ikale Tahi victory over the French Cockerels every night the whole of last week, stoking and sustaining the national exhilaration that had spontaneously erupted in the centre of every village and town of this rugby-crazed garland of islands the moment the referee signaled the end of the game on the night of the 30th September. The local Police are, without a doubt, thankful that the match had been played on the eve of the Tongan Sabbath, as the celebrants’ inculcated respect for the Sabbath helped them keep a lid on the celebrations and to coax them back into their vehicles and homes, just before midnight. Otherwise the infectious carnival that had combusted on the streets of Nuku’alofa could have continued to build in size, decibels and hilarity to culminate in the humongous reception that welcomed the Ikale Tahi team on arrival from Auckland on the morning of Monday the 2nd of October.
The replays also allowed the local experts – the whole population – to point to the numerous opportunities during the game in which the Ikale Tahi could and should have scored at least three more tries to oust the French in humiliation from the competition. For me the most interesting tidbit I picked up from the constant replays is from comments made by the French captain, Thierry Dusatoir, and their backlines coach, Emile Ntamack, in separate interviews immediately after the match. To the question as to what was the difference between the two teams, they both pointed, unbeknownst to one another, to the difference in “heart,” (pronounced ‘art’). One said, “The Tongans played with more heart!” and the other, “The Tongans had bigger hearts!”
Both gentlemen are eminently qualified to make such pronouncements.
On one hand, Emile Ntamack was on the left wing for the French national team at Eden Park when the New Zealand All Blacks last lost on the hallowed turf of their spiritual home in 1994. He scored a brilliant try through an intercept that day, but that match is etched in All Blacks memory because of what is regularly referred to now as, “the try from the end of the world.” Towards the end of the game, the All Blacks were leading 20-16, confident of a victory to avenge their defeat in Christchurch a week earlier. (That match had also marked Jonah Lomu’s test debut!) With three minutes to go, the All Blacks kicked the ball deep into French territory, intending it to go out. It didn’t. The French ran the ball back in a breathtaking counterattack from inside their own 22 and after the ball had passed through every French player’s hands and had swung from one side of the field to the other, their fullback, Jean-Luc Sadourny, scored under the posts, sending the whole of New Zealand into deep shock and despair, whilst the French players and supporters pounded their hearts in exhilaration.
Thierry Dusatoir, on the other hand, captained France to a famous 27-22 win over the All Blacks at the “House of Pain” stadium in Dunedin, in June 2009. But his claim to fame is ultimately based on his role in the humiliating defeat of the All Blacks at their quarter-finals match at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Although he had not been selected in the original French 30-man squad, his try in the second half and his 38 tackles (2 more than the entire All Blacks team!) helped secure the French an unexpected 20-18 victory and sent the heart-broken All Blacks team home! His performance in that match alone got Dusatoir a nomination for world player of the year and was named French captain soon after.
But although such pronouncements are music to Tongan ears, they are, of course, not exotic. They are, in fact, statements of fact. We Tongans think with our hearts. And we wear our hearts on our sleeves! We are quick to anger but are also quick to mirth. We live and love life with a passion. We love each other with a passion. We hate each other with a passion. We beat our children, and sometimes our women, with a passion. We say our prayers with passion. We play politics with passion. We play rugby with passion. And we triumphed over the French at the Tin Cake in Wellington on 30th September with passion.
But that same Tongan passion was almost our undoing at this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Although the Ikale Tahi team had automatically qualified for the 2011 World Cup competition in New Zealand on the wings of their emphatic wins over the Manu Samoa and the American Eagles and the fright they gave the Springboks and the English Roses in 2007, they almost didn’t made it to New Zealand because of the passionate and irrational politics that engulfed Tonga Rugby in the last few years.
The fight for control of the Tonga Rugby Union (TRU) board of directors that had erupted in 2005 raged on during the 2007 World Cup and continued unabated in 2008 and 2009. Allegations of abuse and misuse of TRU resources were leveled at each other by the two main factions. Even the Supreme Court of the country could not get the two factions to voluntarily lay down their arms and come together in a consensus board. It was a letter from International Rugby Board in 2009 threatening to re-assess Tonga’s membership that prompted the Tonga Government to establish through Ordinance in February 2010 an entirely new Board of Directors with no involvement of anyone associated with either of the disputing factions. The new Board of Directors chaired by the Government’s Minister of Finance had roughly 18 months to prepare the Ikale Tahi for the 2011 World Cup.
The new Board was fortunate to have at its disposal Bob Tuckey, an Australian with extensive experience in national and international rugby. The Ikale Tahi had already missed the boat in terms of the playing schedules for 2010 and 2011 of the Tier 1 nations such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Argentina and Italy. But Bob Tuckey, with the assistance of the IRB, was able to put together a playing schedule for ‘Ikale Tahi with other Tier 2 nations as well as some of the Super XV competition’s reserve teams. So whilst its Pacific neighbors, the Flying Fijians and the Manu Samoa had dates with the All Blacks and the Wallabies, the ‘Ikale Tahi had to settle for jousts with Georgia and Canada and the French and Italian B teams. But the relatively inferior outings must have done some good for the Ikale Tahi because a month before opening of the 2011 World Cup, they had beaten the Flying Fijians twice, the Manu Samoans once, and only lost to Japan by a single point.
But the ‘Ikale Tahi’s problems were not over yet. The national Parliament decided to get into the act as well, as a result of a desperate and ill-willed petition initiated by one of the factions that had fought for the control of the TRU. The petition called for the immediate removal of Bob Tuckey as Chair and CEO of the TRU and some vicious, defamatory, and downright racist remarks were uttered by some members of the Parliament who should really be capable of better. Parliament decided in the end that Tuckey should stay on as CEO but should relinquish the Chair of the Board. The Minister of Finance (who is still Minister responsible for implementation of the Ordinance that created the new Board, but who had relinquished the Chair to Tuckey) to his credit, decided that the Parliamentary vote was not binding on him so he took no action.
Then on the eve of the naming of the 30 –man squad for the World Cup, Nili Latu, the charismatic open-side flanker who captained the ‘Ikale Tahi at the 2007 World Cup, and who had not featured, reportedly by choice, in any of the ‘Ikale Tahi’s preparatory games, dropped in on the local scene from his Japan contract base. Immediately there was a rising crescendo of calls inside and outside Parliament for his inclusion in the ‘Ikale Tahi 30-man squad based on nostalgia alone.
The ‘Ikale Tahi coach, ‘Isitolo Maka, who was previously opposed to his inclusion based on past disciplinary matters, relented on the urging of his brother, Finau Maka, who had captained the ‘Ikale Tahi in their most recent wins against the Fijians and Samoans, and other senior players. Bob Tuckey, who had so far withstood his vilification in Parliament with grace and humour, spat the dummy, and resigned from the TRU in protest of the coach’s decision. Parliament threw its weight behind Nili Latu. The TRU Board of Directors, out of sympathy to Tuckey, and in protection of its own integrity, stood its ground and declared void the coach’s decision to include Nili Latu in the 30 man-squad. The country was at a standstill.
In desperation The Hon Prime Minister finally intervened, and negotiated a compromise between Parliament and the Board. It was agreed that Nili Latu would be included amongst the non-traveling reserves, and would be the first to be called into the 30-man squad should a member be injured. The country heaved a huge collective sigh of relief.
But then on the eve of their departure for Auckland and their first match against the night of the All Blacks, there was a rumour of war from inside the ‘Ikale Tahi camp with some players threatening not to board the plane if they were not given the promised portion of their stipends! Some strings were pulled and someone’s safe was pried open in the middle of the night and all the players got on the aircraft. They were greeted on arrival at Auckland airport by 7,000 cheering and crying Tongans, the largest welcoming reception that any team ever received on arrival in New Zealand for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
So, as we cherish and nourish that warm inner glow which the ‘Ikale Tahi sparked with their win over the French in Wellington, we should spare a thought for our champion ‘Ikale Tahi players, and the members of the TRU Board of Directors and their trials and travails. They have been through an emotional hell in the past 18 months. The fact that they triumphed over Japan and France and gave the All Blacks coaches a major scare in the second half of their encounter, is testimony to their resilience and staying power and of course their hearts!
Please also spare a thought and a prayer for Jonah Lomu who is in Auckland in need of a new kidney! Kava kuo heka…!