The URLQ Tertiary team produced pleasing results on the tour of Tonga, helped by the fact we had three training runs before we left Australia.
After arrival on the Tuesday night and one training run on the Wednesday, the team was able to defeat an older and more-experienced NSW Tertiaries team 22-18. The Qld team led 18-0 early and were forced to hang on as NSW came storming back in extremely wet conditions. The match was played in a tough and sometimes ill-tempered tradition of previous clashes between the two organisations - just what you would expect and hope for.
The victory meant the URLQ Tertiary team qualified to play Tonga City in the tournament ‘final’ on Saturday. Tonga City had beaten Tonga Country on the Thursday, with the Country side meeting NSW. After viewing the two Tonga teams on the Thursday, it was obvious size and strength of their players was vastly superior. However our players looked much better versed in structured rugby league. Tonga City defeated the URLQ Tertiary side 32-10 in a match that was anything but one sided. As expected, our side was beaten for size and strength against a much older team, but at no stage gave up or allowed themselves to be run over. My enduring thought from the match was that these players had performed at another level that they had ever experienced playing in the URLQ competition; and this experience would make them much more confident rugby league players in the future.
The only down side to the matches was an inability for the Tongan organising committee to start a game on time, and the lack of suitable dressing rooms. The expectation was we would share a dressing room with the NSW team, but in the end our team found a shaded area behind the stadium and made do with that.
The Game Development experiences both our players and staff, and the Tongan Rugby League were presented with on this trip was what made all the effort of organising both teams to travel to Tonga worthwhile.
Our presence, combined with the arrival of the Mate Ma’a Tonga World Cup squad produced a carnival- like atmosphere for rugby league in Nuku’alofa. Signage was everywhere, and the NSW and Qld teams added to this with their maroon and blue colours whether at a game or just walking down the street shopping.
There were some special times spent by players visiting schools early on the tour, with head coach Mark Gliddon and assistant coach Nick Faulkner leading groups to different schools. All players came back with glowing reports and I believe an experience that provides some good grounding for the privileged lives they lead.
A group of players and officials also visited the former high school of our squad member, Taniela Ilingana, for an official assembly. Taniela played fullback in both matches, and has only relocated to Australia in the past 18 months to study Bio Medicine at Griffith University’s Logan campus. Taniela’s school asked each player and official to speak at the assembly and tell the children what they had/were studying and what they hoped to follow as a profession. This was done as a pointed education message and was very much appreciated by the principal.
The team also attended the church frequented by Taniela’s family on Sunday, and after engaged in a ceremonial kava-drinking event. Afterwards the whole team was guest of honour at an ‘Umu’ banquet at the home of the Ilingana family. On the table were five roasted suckling pigs, with a fresh-caught lobster for each player. This show of extravagance from such a poor family was yet another grounding lesson for the players and will improve them as people.
The team was also part of an official parade through the streets of Nuku’alofa along with the Tongan World Cup squad and the NSW side. This was a cultural experience no player will ever match. The team was lauded like the Maroons State of Origin team visiting a western Qld town. The players had hundreds of photos taken and generally helped the nation celebrate the game of rugby league. It was a chance to market the game that the Tongan Rugby League has likely never seen before, and they will be pleased with the thousands of people who turned out.
The group also attended the official 25th Anniversary dinner of the Tongan Rugby League at the Oholei Beach Resort. This was a special night where the team was acknowledged alongside the Tongan World Cup squad. The players were treated to a fire-dancing show and huge banquet. This night was a thrill for our players and staff, who got to rub shoulders on equal footing with NRL stars like Fui Fui Moi Moi, Brent Kite and Sika Manu.
In all, the Qld team added wonderful colour and prestige to the 25th anniversary of rugby league in Tonga