Pas­sion, pride runs deep for Tonga’s Tau­malolo

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - CHRISTIAN NICOLUSSI

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’.’’

GETTY IM­AGES

Ja­son Tau­malolo leads the Sipi Tau for Tonga against the Ki­wis.

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