IT’s likely the first time in any World Cup, in any sport, that players from one nation’s team donned the uniform of another, presented jerseys before kick-off and cheered a “rival” country from the dugout.
Fresh off the plane from Ireland after their final pool match, Australia’s Michael Jennings and Andrew Fifita were photographed at The New Shay before Tonga’s stirring 16-0 win over Italy wearing the Mate Ma’a striking red training gear.
While the gesture may appear bizarre to outsiders, Tonga coach Charles Tonga and captain Brent Kite described it as a symbol of a new era in which NRL players will each pledge allegiance to two countries: Australia, New Zealand or England and someone else.
The changes was reported by Fairfax Media a fortnight ago and Tonga said he had been advised by his national federation that they would be in force. Kite, who has also played for Australia, acknowledged the loosened qualification laws would be mocked – and not just by those outside the game.
“Even people in the game … in rugby league it’s a cultural thing,” he told Fairfax Media. “You pick sides and you stick with your side. You don’t go from NSW to Queensland.
“I would just say as someone who is half Tongan and half Australian: it’s as hard as picking between your mum and your dad. My dad’s Aussie, my mum’s Tongan.
“Australia and New Zealand are spoiled for talent. You have a look over there and Michael Jenningsa isn’t realy getting a run for Australia. He would have been a massive asset to an emerging nation like Tonga.
“If we are serious about getting international fixtures that people want to watch and can raise revenue for the game, instead of just being a basket case as they have been….
“For those guys to take time out of their campaign to come and support us when we had been knocked out of the comp was a really touching gesture and Charlie rewarded them by (them) being able to hand out the jerseys.
“Playing for Aussies and Kiwis and even NSW – it’s very lucrative for a young giuy We don’t ask them to come and play and pass up that cash. We want everyone to do well.”
The brutal contest allowed Scotland to qualify for a quarter-final against New Zealand. Tonga went into the Halifax game with their World Cup already over; Italy needed to win and threw everything at their opponents.
Given that it was a match which the Tongans led just 2-0 at halftime, and which they iced by scoring with two minutes remaining, their coach reckoned it should have forever buried a prejudice they have faced repeatedly.
“People say we are only good for 20 minutes, that we’re big but we run out of steam,” Tonga said.
“We were just known as big and physical. Today we showed we can go for the 80 minutes. People shouldn’t say that anymore..”
The first try of the contest did not come until the 46th minute, when Willie Manu beat three defenders and carried three across the line with him in an Herculean effort.
Italy followed with their best period of the match; a crunching Konrad Hurrell tackle which jolted the ball loose was probably the turning point of the whole contest as the Azzurri dominated posession.
Halfback Daniel Foster’s 63rd minute try was also a testiment to raw determination; he was stopped well short but carried two men as he drove the final metre to the line, flinging an arm out to plant the Steeden on the chalk.
Peni Terepo’s late score was rare beast; given after an illegal strip in the Italian in-goal. When Italy coach Carlo Napolitano was going through, post-match, the factors that conspired against them, captain Anthoy Minichiello added: “refereeing”.
In particular, the Italians believed video referee Phil Bentham had wrongly denied centre James Tedesco a fair try. He was ruled to have been held up – and was later taken out chasing a kick. “It was maybe thew Scottish Gods looking down on the referee,” said coach Carlo Napolitano
To top of a dramatic evening, man of the match FuiFui MoiMoi answered an English television interviewer at fulltime entirely in Tongan.
Minichiello, meanwhile, hinted he would re-sign with Sydney Roosters in roughly a fortnight.
“It’s been a success for Italy,” said Minichiello. “First World Cup and we’ve only lost one game. We beat England (in a warm-up) too.”
Napolitano said he was unsure if he would continue in the head coach’s roleech role.
TONGA 16 (Willie Manu, Daniel Foster, Peni Terepo tries; Samsoni Langi 2 goals) beat ITALY 0 at New Shay, Halifax. Referee: Ben Thaler (England). Crowd: 10,266.
Filed for SYDNEY MORNING HERALD