If there’s any justice to be had in the world of highfalutin sports gongs, then the Samoan and Tonga rugby league teams – and their captains in particular – will surely have ribbons and medals around their necks some time soon.
Saturday night’s rugby league world cup match between the two fierce rivals was about as perfect an example as we’ll ever see of athletes acknowledging the higher purpose and wider impact of their actions.
With pockets of south-Auckland enduring violent confrontations and civil unrest as passions soared well above boiling point during the lead-up, Saturday night’s match was in danger of being remembered for all of the wrong reasons.
It may be dispiritingly common in many parts of the globe, but New Zealand doesn’t do sports-related violence and disorder. We had the Springboks tour of 1981, but even that was more about politics than sport. And that was over three decades ago.
What occurred in Auckland last week – unrest in a city in which the match wasn’t even being played – was utterly unprecedented. So too was the response of the Samoan and Tongan players.
It was after midnight on the eve of the match when Samoan captain Frank Pritchard and senior team mate Sam Tagatease set off for the Tongan team hotel to visit with Tongan captain Sika Manu.
For a week, large crowds had been gathering in Otahuhu and Mangere, ostensibly to celebrate the world cup. But a video posted to social media of a young Samoan fan burning a Tongan flag had lit a dangerous spark. The gatherings turned ugly. On one Tuesday night, six people were arrested as Tongans and Samoans brawled on the streets. Four more arrests followed Wednesday night, and another six Thursday.
Traffic was snarling up as people blocked streets and rode around on the bonnets of cars. Police confiscated 15 weapons, mainly sticks. As the situation spiralled, community leaders pleaded for calm, players posted messages of peace to social media and police issued warnings.
It wasn’t enough. Frank Pritchard and Sika Manu could see that.
“Today’s generation, our youth, it’s getting out of hand, and it’s up to us to make a change and show a positive side,” was how Pritchard described his thinking.
Manu agreed. A stronger show of unity was required. A plan was hatched. The teams would gather on the field for a joint prayer, and then perform their challenges -Samoa’s Siva Tau and Tonga’s sipi tau together – in the process resolving a stand-off over the running order.
“Frank came into the camp and we had a big chat about what we could do to show the people that we care about them,” Manu said. “We want them to make peace with each other.
“We wanted to show everyone that we are together as Pacific Nations. We wanted to get that message across to everyone who was watching the game. It was really important to show that. We wanted to show that if we [the players] can do it then everyone else can do it.”
Powerful as it was, the display of pre-match unity wouldn’t be enough. If the players really wanted to make a statement, they needed to keep the contest clean – easier said than done in a sport that revolves around high speed, high-impact collisions, and where the ability to channel aggression is often the difference between success and failure.
There was plenty on the line, too, for a Samoa team seeking its first win after a drubbing by New Zealand a week earlier and a Tonga team for whom a defeat would be considered a catastrophic failure to deliver on a vats reservoir of promise.
Taking it easy was not an option. But nor was taking each other’s heads off. Every player would need to navigate an extremely fine line.
“We all get to go home at the end of the day and see our loved ones. On the streets it is a different story.”
– Frank Pritchard
In the tunnel, as the teams lined up prior to taking the field, handshakes and hugs were exchanged between players who are in many cases good friends and club team mates. Outside, Waikato Stadium was seething mass of mainly red and a little blue, with the Tongan fans vastly outnumbering their Samoa opposites.
The stage was set for what will go down as one of the great occasions not just for rugby league, but for sport, in New Zealand.
The flipside of the passion that boiled over in Auckland is that when harnessed, as it was inside Waikato Stadium, it can create an atmosphere like no other.
From a privileged position pitch side, the raw emotion and energy bouncing from the stands onto the players and then back again was palpable.
If there’s been a more poignant pre-game ceremony in this country, then it will have been special indeed.
“It shouldn’t be like that, you know, with all the drama outside the rugby league game,” said Pritchard. “So we come together and embrace love and peace.”
And then they tore into each other. Incredibly, considering the stakes and the ferocity of the contest, there was barely a borderline tackle, and not a single moment of spite.
13 years ago, former Wainuiomata league player Tana Umaga decided that tending to unconscious Welsh captain Colin Charvis was more important than joining in an All Blacks attack.
Umaga’s act of selflessness was noted by the NZ Olympic committee, which nominated him for the Pierre de Coubertin trophy, a prestigious global fair play award established in 1965. The inaugural winner was Eugenio Monti, an Italian bobsledder who leant a replacement part from his own bobsled to a British rival so he could complete his final run. The Brit promptly turned in a record run to win Olympic Gold, leaving Monti with bronze and a reputation as a helluva good dude.
Thirty-eight years later, Umaga joined him, and the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Wayne Gretzky and Nelson Mandela (Mandela received the ‘career’ version of the trophy in 1995 for reconciling with South African rugby).
Umaga’s act was clearly the decent thing to do – but not exactly uncommon. What we witnessed on Saturday night from Pritchard, Manu and their players is every bit as worthy of recognition, arguably more so.
“At the end of the day, it’s a rugby league game, and the battle should be staying on the field,” Pritchard said after the match.
It was thanks in no small part to the captains and players from both teams that that is exactly what happened in Hamilton.
Back in South Auckland, 29 people were arrested as thousands took to the streets ‘celebrating’ Tonga’s victory. Who knows what that number might have been had Pritchard not made that late-night visit.
“We are all humans,” he said. “We all get to go home at the end of the day and see our loved ones. On the streets it is a different story. Those young people out there who are making it bad for the rest of us, pull your head in. It’s not worth it.”
* Steve Deane was the venue media manager at the match between Samoa and Tonga in Hamilton on Saturday night.