Despite media reports concentrating on sporadic violence in the leadup, the Tonga-Samoa RLWC international on Saturday was one of the best live sporting atmospheres in recent New Zealand history, writes Jamie Wall. And one that could have happened nowhere else on earth.
I was excited to see the most stacked Tongan and Samoan rugby league teams in years go at it in their Rugby League World Cup match, given the intensity of the rivalry. Media coverage last week made out that the match was going to be some sort of violent showdown because a bunch of Tongan and Samoan kids had some fights that got filmed, put on Facebook and splashed all over the news. Then another kid burned a Tongan flag, which again got the same treatment.
If it was supposed to be a tribal brawl, no one told the 18,000 fans that flocked to Waikato Stadium – mostly in a long, flag waving procession of cars directly from South Auckland on Saturday afternoon. The sun was shining and before heading to the park, they turned Victoria St into a noisy jam of red and blue, honking horns and laughter.
Inside Waikato Stadium was the sort of atmosphere that Super Rugby and the All Blacks would kill for. Adults, teens, children, and a few neutral fans mixed freely, decked out in their teams’ colours. The wall of noise intensified as the teams took the field, and hit critical mass when the players joined together in a symbolic gesture of prayer before the kickoff.
The people around me were stoked, but not surprised.
“Tokouso, g” a teenaged Tongan fan told me. “Tonga and Samoa is about entertainment, not beef. One love.”
“It’s just young kids causing that trouble,” said a Tongan mother who had brought her five children along. “All it takes is one person to do something wrong and the media makes a big deal about it.”
The hits were big and the crowd noise was bigger. The sheer volume meant you couldn’t even hear the ref’s whistle, despite the purpose-built football ground’s stands being as close to the field as possible. Flags flew – mostly the red of Tonga, though there were large sections of the blue of Samoa, and a couple of defiant Fijian flags from fans who just wanted to get involved.
Songs and chants organically broke out in the crowd at regular intervals, not in the way that the All Blacks tried so hard to get going during the British & Irish Lions tour. The guy on the PA had done his homework, with each Pacific tune over the speakers greeted with a roar of approval.
The strong Tongan side managed to build up a healthy lead, off the back of NRL superstars Jason Taumalolo, Mick Jennings and Andrew Fifita. The Samoans threatened a late comeback with a stunning solo try to Tim Lafai, but it wasn’t enough to claw back the lead.
But, by then, it didn’t really seem to matter. All the coverage in the buildup was negative, but everything about actually being there was positive. I talked to a few more fans, because no one seemed to want to leave the park.
“I live in South Auckland,” said Luisa, a Samoan fan. “I was seeing all this passion every night, but it was people waving flags and showing their pride. I didn’t see any negativity. I feel like social media blew up a couple of incidents. Tonight was amazing.”
“Mean game, mean,” said Masoe, a Tongan fan in his early twenties. When I asked him about the drama during the week, he had this to say: “All those young ones need to stop all that nonsense. It’s no good… everyone needs to go back to church!”
I wandered around the stadium afterwards as the streets around became jammed with cars honking and blasting music. Fans danced and sang on the pavement, many waving the flags of both nations in each hand.
I’ve been to a lot of rugby and league games, but this was something completely different. This more than a game, it was a day for the Pasifika community to take centre stage and show Aotearoa what it really looks like. It was one of the biggest displays of Pasifika unity I’ve ever seen. It happened on Saturday night in Hamilton, and I was there to be part of it.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.