Tonga Keeping Their Feet On The Ground
The rugby league community is besotted with Mate Ma’a Tonga in the wake of their emotion-charged victories over Samoa and New Zealand in the past 10 days, but the team is giving the ‘one week at a time’ cliché a good workout as they aim to capitalise on their chance at World Cup glory.
Saturday’s stirring 28-22 upset of the Kiwis is being hailed as one of the greatest games in the history of international rugby league, and among the most meritorious results in Tongan sport.
But winger David Fusitu’a – a hat-trick hero in Hamilton as Tonga overturned a 14-point halftime deficit – says the squad must move on quickly from the euphoria.
“(Coach Kristian Woolf) said, ‘that game’s over now, we’ve come to the knockout stage and if we lose, we’re out,’” Fusitu’a revealed after Tonga’s first training session in Christchurch on Tuesday.
“So we’ve got to knuckle down and forget about what’s been.
“It was a great day and we enjoyed it, but it’s over now and we’ve got a knockout game in front of us.
“There was always a feeling there in the squad (that we could go all the way), but we’ve got to take every game as it comes.”
Fusitu’a says the focus has already shifted to this weekend’s quarter-final meeting with Lebanon at AMI Stadium, with a semi-final date against England or Papua New Guinea in Auckland – where Tonga would arguably start favourites – the reward for the winner.
Tonga has moved into second favourite with the bookies behind Australia to reach the December 2 final in Brisbane, highlighting the gilt-edged opportunity at their fingertips.
But the Warriors flyer admits it is hard to grasp the enormity of what the Tongan side has already achieved.
“I was quite lost for words, the effort the boys put in out there on the weekend, they did it for each other and it really showed out there, playing for our families and stuff like that.
“Our country is very proud and it’s quite unbelievable how much they get behind us. I know all the boys have a lot of time for the fans and all the families that come out and support us.
“It’s pretty crazy, but we try not to read too much into it. The game’s finished now and there’s a game ahead of us against Lebanon and we’re looking forward to that now.”
The presence of experienced campaigners such as captain Sika Manu, Will Hopoate, Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo has helped keep the relatively young squad grounded.
“After a massive high, they bring us back down and kind of refocus us for the next job at hand,” the 23-year-old Fusitu’a says.
Taumalolo and Fifita gobbled up pre-tournament headlines for their decision to turn their back on New Zealand and Australia respectively, but Fusitu’a – who made his debut for the Kiwis on last year’s Four Nations tour – was one of a clutch of less high-profile stars to choose Tonga over his country of birth.
“I never thought I’d play against New Zealand, but that’s how things panned out and we enjoyed every moment of it,” the Auckland native says.
While superstars Taumalolo and Fifita were excellent throughout the group matches, several second-tier players have been equally integral to Tonga’s unbeaten charge.
Fusitu’a’s second-half try treble was invaluable to Saturday’s boilover, while Sydney Roosters forward Sio Siua Taukeiaho, another NZ rep, has run for over 550 metres and kicked 11 goals, and former Wests Tigers and Penrith forward Ben Murdoch-Masila – now plying his trade in Super League – scored a try against Samoa before laying on a vital try for Will Hopoate against the Kiwis.
Warriors discard Tuimoala Lolohea outshone Kiwis halves Shaun Johnson and Kodi Nikorima on Saturday, hoisting a pinpoint Crossfield kick for Fusitu’a’s first try, before snaffling an intercept to put Tonga back in front – arguably the decisive moment of the Test.
Meanwhile, Fusitu’a formed a superb right-edge combination with another jettisoned former Warriors teammate, blockbusting centre Konrad Hurrell.
“He’s a great player, a damaging ball-runner, he draws in a lot of defenders and when he can the ball out there for me I just have to put the ball down pretty much,” Fusitu’a says of Hurrell, who came into the line-up for the injured Solomone Kata.
With the momentous win at Waikato Stadium Fusitu’a, young half Ata Hingano and former Warriors Lolohea, Hurrell, Taukeiaho and Siliva Havili put one over on senior Warriors stars Johnson, Simon Mannering and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
“They come out and I thought they played really well, the Warriors boys, but I was happy to get the result in the end,” says Fusitu’a, the Warriors’ top try-scorer in a difficult 2017 campaign with 12.
Just being in a winning team is no doubt a novelty for Fusitu’a after finishing his fourth NRL campaign with nine straight losses, but the athletic three-quarter is taking nothing for granted ahead of Tonga’s assignment against the least-fancied of the eight quarter-finalists.
“I thought (Lebanon) played a lot of good footy up until this point, they pushed Australia for the most part of that game, so we’re not going to take them lightly and we’re definitely going to give them the respect they deserve.
“We’ll try and start a lot better than we did (against New Zealand). There’s a lot of things to take away from that game and a lot of things we can learn from.
“They play with a lot of passion, like we do. They’re no pushovers, they’re going to come out and compete for the whole game. That’s something we’re looking forward to and that’s a challenge for us.”
RLWC Quarter-final 2: 5.00pm (NZT), November 18 – Tonga v Lebanon @ AMI Stadium Christchurch
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