The South Pacific country of Tonga has been introduced to footy fairly recently, but they’ve taken to the sport quickly and have been able to earn their stripes on the international level. The small Polynesian archipelago of roughly 103,000 people is home to many talented athletes.
Tongans have historically favored other full-contact sports throughout their history, as rugby union is their national sport and rugby league is also widely played in the islands. This influence is apparent in the growing Tongan diaspora, specifically in Australia and New Zealand.
Footy wasn’t introduced to Tonga until the 1980s, when a couple of Australian teachers visited Tongan schools and managed to show the kids the rules of the game. Later on in the 90s, Ewen Gracie, a teacher from Melbourne, worked at a Tongan high school and attempted to establish an ongoing school-based Aussie rules competition with reasonable success.
The Tongan Australian Football Association (TAFA) was founded in January 2003 by Aussie ex-patriates Tim Valente and Mark Korsten. The teams grew rapidly in skill and in numbers, and the following year they sent the first Tongan footy player overseas to compete – Sila Va’enuku, a former rugby union footballer, traveled to Melbourne to play in the Australian Football Multicultural Cup alongside a handful of Tongan Australians.
By 2008, Tonga’s national footy team, the Tigers, were hoping to have the numbers to compete in the Australian Football International Cup, but they didn’t qualify. They tried again in 2011, and surprised many by placing ninth. Despite losses to Nauru and Papua New Guinea, the Tongans showed enough promise to return to the competition three years later.
At the 2014 International Cup, Tonga beat Japan, Pakistan, and India in decisive victories, while also suffering losses to Canada and South Africa. The Tongans finished sixth in the competition that year and brought renewed optimism for the 2017 edition of the Cup.
Many Tongan youngsters are involved in footy to this day, with the U16 national team winning the 2009 AFL Oceania Cup and earning runner-up honors in 2010.
Currently, the Tongans have less than 200 registered footballers nationwide, but the sport continues to grow in popularity and has an established presence in five different Tongan high schools.
TONGANS IN THE AFL
- Israel Folau (played 2011-2012) – A Tongan Australian who grew up in both Sydney and Brisbane, Folau played in the National Rugby League with the Melbourne Storm (2007-2008) and the Brisbane Broncos (2009-2010) before surprising many by switching to Aussie rules. Folau played for the AFL’s Greater Western Sydney Giants as a utility player. He played in 13 AFL games and 15 games in the North East Australian Football League (NEAFL) before switching football codes again, this time to rugby union.
- Peni Mahina (played 2014-present) – One of the most famous Tongan footy players, Mahina is the son of rugby union legend Malakai Mahina. He surprised many when he decided to pursue Aussie rules, but has since become one of the most consistent playmakers for the Tongan national team, starting in 2014 at the International Cup.