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Rugby World Cup: Young Tongans dream of the meal ticket

Rugby is more than just a sport in Tonga; it is a way of life. From the moment they can walk, the kids are introduced to the rugby ball

Published: Sep 4, 2023 11:41:53 AM IST
Updated: Sep 4, 2023 12:02:11 PM IST

Rugby World Cup: Young Tongans dream of the meal ticketLesieli, Siua and Sisi play a game of touch rugby by the beach at Popua on July 20, 2023, in Nuku’alofa while their families are fishing on the reef. Image: Nuku Alofa, Tonga

On the rocky foreshore of Popua, the poorest area of the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa, a group of girls and boys are tossing around a rugby ball.

Siua, 13, and 11-year-olds Lesieli and Sisi play catch and run across sharp stones as their families fish on the reef,searching for dinner.

It used to be a pretty beach before it was destroyed by a powerful tsunami during the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai eruption last year.

The tsunami washed away many homes in the Popua neighbourhood and damaged their fishing grounds, yet the families return on a rainy day and the kids throw the ball around, their heads spinning with hopes for a better future.

For young Tongans rugby is a potential meal ticket, a way off the rocks and into the riches on offer in the professional game in Australia and New Zealand or further afield in Japan or Europe.

Siua is about to join his first rugby team, playing for a small team of middle schoolers at Fanga Government Middle School.

He dreams of one day being able to represent his country like Pita Ahki or George Moala, or other legendary players who have worn the red jersey of 'Ikake Tahi -- the national team's nickname which evokes the sea eagles that soar to great heights and travel widely.

Siua’s determination and will to succeed has rubbed off on Lesieli and Sisi. The girls now also dream of competing for their country.

Women's rugby in Tonga is still at a fledgling stage: ranked 29th in the world, they play in the annual Oceania Rugby Women's Championship, habitually finishing ahead of Papua New Guinea but a long way behind Fiji and Samoa.

Rugby arrived in Tonga in the late 19th century, when the sport was introduced by British and Irish missionaries.

Over the last 100 years, however, it has become part of the national identity although many of its best players have found fame and fortune overseas rather than at home.

One of the greatest of all, Jonah Lomu, may have been born in New Zealand but he spent some of his early childhood in Holopeka and spoke Tongan fluently. Jonah was one of their own.

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Electric passion

Rugby is more than just a sport in Tonga, it is a way of life. From the moment they can walk, the kids are introduced to the rugby ball. Some, like Timothy Ebrahim, use it as a pillow.

Timothy and his family are moving to Australia next year, another emigre perhaps who will go on to play for another country.

The highlight of the Tongan rugby calendar is the annual inter-island tournament which draws families and communities from every corner of the 170-island archipelago.

Tribal chants and thunderous drums resound in the stadiums, creating an electrifying atmosphere.

When the national team is in action, Tongans pour out into the streets in a sea of red and white, with flags on fence lines, even painting their cars and their houses red to cheer on their warriors from afar.

The 'Ikake Tahi could use some of that passion as they attempt to reach the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time.

They have competed at each of the previous editions bar 1991 when they failed to qualify. Along the way they have recorded some memorable wins, notably over France in 2011, but have yet to emerge from their pool.

This time they are in the dreaded Pool B where they will face three of the top five teams in the world in Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, leaving Romania as their best chance of a win.

Ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France, Agence France-Presse asked 20 aspiring photographers from each country qualified for the competition to show one aspect of the rugby union culture in their homeland, with the help of Canon cameras who are sponsoring the tournament. From Namibia to Fiji via Georgia and Scotland this photo essay gives us a glimpse of the core values of rugby on five continents.