Rugby league’s finest day

Aggression without spite. Brutality without malice. Defeat without complaint. Victory without hubris.

Saturday night’s historic rugby league test victory for Tonga over the Kiwis was as much about what wasn’t evident as what was. A match that defied all sporting norms in the best possible way showcased the sport of rugby league like never before. For a game so often hamstrung by limited horizons, the possibilities seemed endless as Waikato Stadium shook and lurched under the weight of jubilant, singing and dancing Tongan fans.

“I’ve played for a number of years and that is the best crowd I have ever played in front of,” said Simon Mannering, the 43-test veteran whose on-field experiences include winning a world cup at the cauldron that is Suncorp Stadium and playing in an NRL grand final in front of 70,000 fans.

Though they could be hewn from the same piece of granite, Mannering will never receive the kudos directed the way of Richie McCaw. That’s down to the blue tinge to his collar rather than any inferiority as a statesman, or gentleman.

“I just thought it was a real great spectacle for rugby league,” said Mannering as the raucous noise of the Tongan’s team’s celebration drifted through the bowels of Waikato Stadium on Saturday night. “Yeah, I’m disappointed for us with that result. But I can walk off the field with a smile on my face just really happy with the game, for rugby league in general.”

Having toiled for over a decade, often fruitlessly but never less than wholeheartedly, Mannering knew exactly what he had just witnessed: the future.

Having just been rolled by a Tongan team that contained four star players who almost certainly would have been standing alongside him had they not defected in spectacular fashion to the country of their heritage on the eve of the tournament, it would have been easy for Mannering and his Kiwi comrades to have felt a little bitter. To a man, it seems, they weren’t. If anything, the Kiwis appear to be huge supporters of a Tongan revolution that has transformed the rugby league landscape.

“I agree with [Simon],” star halfback Shaun Johnson said. “It’s really good for our sport to have a nation like Tonga challenging the top tier countries.”

David Kidwell, an under-siege coach who will go down in the history books as the first man to coach a Tier 1 nation to defeat by a Tier 2 nation at a World Cup, by rights should have been apoplectic after watching the Kiwis cough up a 16-2 half-time lead.

“I look at rugby league as a whole,” Kidwell said. “Look at that crowd. That is what we want for international footy.”

A sport that often deserves its status as a whipping boy, rugby league nonetheless retains a capacity to demonstrate the virtues of athletic competition that eclipses its overly stage-managed cousin rugby union and well beyond the reach of its cynicism-ridden forbear association football.

From the spine-tingling haka vs sipi tau pre-match challenges to the cataclysmic collisions up front and rapier-like finishes out wide, Saturday night’s fixture was a masterpiece of sporting theatre. And it couldn’t have been played, nor deconstructed post-match, in better spirit.

“I finally had a sense of what it would have been like to be at the first state of origin match,”
said Steve Mascord, a veteran Australian journalist who has dedicated much of his life to travelling the planet in search of the buzz that witnessing rugby league at its most pure can provide.

“That was a rare example of rugby league taking an opportunity,” he said. “Let’s hope this was another one.”

Mascord flew in for the match from Canberra where he covered the contest between Fiji and Italy, and departed shortly after for Perth so he could take in the match between Wales and Ireland. But it will be Hamilton that leaves an indelible mark on him.

In that, he is aligned entirely with Mannering.

“I guess that is a question for them,” said Mannering when asked if he felt the likes of Taumalolo, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Konrad Hurrell and David Fusitua should now stick with Tonga in years ahead.

“They were obviously part of [Saturday]. I think without them in that team [Saturday] doesn’t happen the way it does.

“If anything I’d like to see them stick with it to grow the game in those Pacific Islands. It will make the international game a better place.

“I guess we’ll see what comes of it. With the whole thing – starting before the world cup with allegiances and that, I thought good things were going to come from it. Unfortunately, it is to our detriment that Tonga beat us, but I always thought ‘how good would it be for our game for these second-tier nations to beat top tier nations’.

“Unfortunately it was us [in Hamilton], but if the Pacific Island teams get to choose their strongest teams and we can create an international game where, I guess especially for us in New Zealand not having to rely on England or Australia to get tournaments going, we could play Tonga here in a three-match series, or a tri-series with Samoa and Tonga.

“If they have their strongest teams they are competitive nations. They’ll give Aussie or England a push. I just think it is great for the game. Hopefully [Hamilton] was the start.”

Even the most outspoken critic of the Tongan defectors, Kiwis captain Adam Blair, joined the chorus of Tongan well-wishers.

“At the end of the day it is a rugby league game,” Blair said. “We go out there for our country. We cross that line and we do as much as we can for each other and at the end of the game you go and say hello and congratulations. That’s all it was.”

Fittingly, the last word went to a remarkably chilled out Taumalolo. He’d spent the week avoiding the Kiwi media because he didn’t want the attention to distract from his preparations, which included lowering his personal best time at the go-kart track.

“I don’t know – I haven’t lived that long,” Taumalolo said when asked if the win was the greatest moment in Tongan sport.

“I guess most Pacific Islanders play for tier one teams. So for us to come back and play for Tonga and end up beating New Zealand is a great thing. You’ll see that tonight with all the Tongan supporters jumping around with their flags. You’ll see them at KFC.”

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