Passion, pride runs deep for Tonga’s Taumalolo
You show Jason Taumalolo the powerful, emotional image of him leading the Tongan Sipi Tau against New Zealand at last year’s World Cup and the reaction is instant.
‘‘There was a lot of pride that night,’’ Taumalolo says, smiling as he leans over to get a closer view at one of the lasting memories of the tournament.
‘‘I was nervous when the boys first asked me. We were actually in the sheds and saying our last good lucks to each other and shaking hands when Siliva Havili pulled me aside and said, ‘Jase, the boys have asked if you’re keen to lead the Sipi Tau’.
‘‘He put me on the spot. I said, ‘if you want me to, I’ll happily do it’.
‘‘He said the boys would love you to do it.
‘‘I was full of adrenaline and pride. When they dropped to their knee around me and I was standing in the middle, that’s when I felt it.
‘‘I had every intention of looking at ‘Blairy’ [Adam Blair].’’
That’s right, Adam Blair, the proud Kiwi who slammed Taumalolo at the time for ‘‘not being man enough’’ to inform his former New Zealand buddies he was jumping ship to join Tonga on eve of the World Cup.
His defection was soon followed by Andrew Fifita and several Kiwis, including Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma’u.
‘‘I’m not a fan of putting people down on social media and making things personal,’’ Taumalolo says as he takes time out from the Tongan training camp in Hamilton yesterday.
‘‘I know he’d take those comments back and not say it the way he did. I took it personally that game.
‘‘I know Blairy is a passionate leader for New Zealand. But you draw a line with some of the things he said. It came with how passionate he was about the New Zealand jersey and I can understand why he was so fired up and made the comments he made.
‘‘I think we were lucky enough to get the win that day.’’
Tonga went within a whisker of qualifying for the World Cup final against Australia, only to lose a semifinal thriller against England. The atmosphere that night at Mt Smart Stadium was electric – widely rated as among the best in recent years.
The crowd was so loud Taumalolo said the players had to repeat their onfield calls and often run over to each other to hear properly.
‘‘Seeing the sea of red actually topped the atmosphere at the 2015 [NRL] grand final,’’ he says.
It will be the same deal when the Tongans play a historic test against Australia at Mt Smart Stadium next Saturday.
It will be a sellout. But we’ll get to the Aussies soon.
First you have to back up and delve a little deeper into why Taumalolo made the decision to join Tonga. What motivated the 25-yearold wrecking ball to go from representing New Zealand in the Anzac test to six months later pulling on the Tongan red?
Taumalolo’s decision will go down as a watershed moment in the international game.
A Mad Monday chat with Johnathan Thurston played a role. So, too, a post-match chat with Fifita.
Taumalolo and Fifita had represented Tonga previously, but this would be a game-changer.
‘‘We had just beaten Cronulla in a finals game when Drew [Fifita] whispered in my ear, ‘I’m thinking of going back to play for Tonga, would you be keen to go back?’,’’ Taumalolo said. ‘‘At the time I wasn’t giving it much thought because we were thinking about the following week of the finals.
‘‘Drew is one of the best frontrowers in the game and, at the time, he would have been one of the first picked in the Kangaroos, so it was hard for me to believe he’d go back to play for Tonga. But when he said it it woke me up a bit.
‘‘I thought about a lot of players who had played for Tonga and New Zealand, but played for Tonga at the back end of their careers, players who went back to represent their country of heritage.
‘‘I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to represent Tonga while I’m playing the best footy I can’.
‘‘Believe it or not, and it’s probably not the best day to make decisions, but I was on Mad Monday when I had a good chat with ‘Jono’ [Thurston]. We were on Magnetic Island.
‘‘I said to him, ‘I’m thinking about going back to play for Tonga’, and he said, ‘what’s the main factor behind you wanting to do that?’.
‘‘I said, ‘I’d love to represent my people while I’m still playing good footy and not the back end of my career, and what better time than this World Cup’.
‘‘He turned to me and said: ‘If I had my way and could represent his indigenous culture at a World Cup, he’d be all for it’.
‘‘I think from that point it gave me a bit of comfort in making my decision.
‘‘I then rang my parents [Vaai and Tomi] and asked them if they wanted me to play for New Zealand. But without hesitation they said they’d be happy with whatever decision I made.
‘‘They’re both Tongan born – they sacrificed a lot for me to get me where I am now – and they were filled with joy.
‘‘They went quiet at the time – I wasn’t sure if mum was going to give me a spray – but I could hear dad in the background and he said, ‘if you do this, we’ll be proud’.’’
Jason Taumalolo leads the Sipi Tau for Tonga against the Kiwis.