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Tonga-NZ league game will be emotional for some players

Tuesday 21 June 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Pacific Islands, Regional

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Tonga-NZ league game will be emotional for some players
Photo: RNZ

This Saturday's highly anticipated test match between the Kiwis and Mate Ma'a Tonga is set to be an emotional one for many players making their international debut.

It comes ahead of the Rugby League World Cup in September this year where New Zealand is likely to come face to face with their Pacific Island neigbours.

Nearly half of the Kiwis team is made up of Pasifika players who have had to choose between representing New Zealand and their island nations of heritage.

Annetta-Claudia Nu'uausala
Photo: RNZ Pacific/Finau Fonua

"My dad is half Tongan half Polish, and my mum's Māori so my mum's grandfather represented the Kiwis and captained the Kiwis, and...jeez that's the main reason I chose the Kiwis and why I continue to do so, but one day I'd want to play for Tonga," said Kiwis star fullback Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who is of Tongan heritage.

For others, however, it had been a deeply personal dilemma. Kiwi Ferns prop Annetta-Claudia Nu'uausala said her emotions ran high when she played against Samoa earlier this year.

"It didn't hit me until I guess we sang the New Zealand anthem and I just felt I was playing for the wrong team. To be honest, it affected performance in that game," said Nu'uausala.

"I think if that opportunity ever arises again, I think I would be to honor my parents the best way I could which be to play for Samoa," she added.

For Kiwis second-row and former Samoan international Isaiah Papali'i, playing for New Zealand meant he could represent both nations

"I think growing up here in New Zealand as a grassroots Kiwi player and I guess when it comes to choosing either player that's what made me lean towards choosing New Zealand, the fact that they brought me up in their system and taught me the game of rugby league," said Papali'i.

Isaiah Papali’i
Photo: RNZ Pacific/Finau Fonua

"If I play against Samoa...that would be weird but hopefully, I won't come across that problem," he joked.

Kiwi winger Katelyn Vaha'akolo, who is of Māori and Tongan heritage said it had also been a dilemma for her.

"I think it's very challenging to face my own culture this weekend. If I play for Tonga this week, I will be ineligible for the world cup this year, but in the future", said Vaha'akolo.

"I'm hoping to represent Tonga, that's one of my goals. It's challenging but, in the meantime, go the Māori ", she joked.

When asked about who she would be supporting in the men's game.

Vaha'akolo said, "I'm supporting Tonga of course. Go Mate Ma'a Tonga!"

Preparations are underway for the Kiwi Ferns who face Tonga this Saturday at Mount Smart Stadium.

The test serves as a warmup for the upcoming Rugby League World Cup this September.

It's been difficult for many Pasifika players in the Kiwis have had to choose between representing New Zealand and their island nations of heritage.

Kiwi Ferns Prop Annetta-Claudia Nu'uausala said it had been a deeply personal dilemma for her since she played against Samoa earlier this year.

Mate Ma'a Tonga players arrive in New Zealand

Mate Ma'a Tonga players have arrived in New Zealand ahead of their highly anticipated match-up against the Kiwis this Saturday.

Mate Ma'a Tonga players have arrived in New Zealand
Photo: Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki

A small crowd of Tongan supporters greeted the team at Auckland Airport which included Labour MP Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki.

Crowds have been reduced due to covid restrictions.

The team will greet the public and media at a joint gathering at Otahuhu Leopards Rugby League Club on Wednesday.

A small crowd of Tongan supporters greeted the team at Auckland Airport
Photo: Anahila Kanongata'a-Suisuiki