RUGBY

Tongans take to sea and sky

Sunday 25 September 2011, 6:01PM
By Rugby World Cup 2011
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KERIKERI

Skydiving, parasailing, fishing and kayaking followed by a traditional Sunday Tongan feast.

The weekend was anything but dull for the Ikale Tahi before bidding a sad adieu to Northland.

With just under a week until Tonga face France in their final Pool A match, the squad were making the most of a rare break in training by taking to the sea and sky.

One player higher on life than most was half back Thomas Palu, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Saturday. Prop Halani Aulika said the team celebrated by, “saying a prayer for him, giving him some birthday wishes and having some birthday drinks".

But Palu had his own style of celebrating, taking his first parasail in Paihia. “It just felt like I was floating across the sky, it felt like another world to be honest,” he said.

Hooker Aleki Lutui and prop Sona Taumalolo went kayaking, Aulika snared some snapper and coach Isitolo Maka was prevented from going horse riding with the safety of the steed in mind. “They said I was too heavy,” he joked.

City slickers

On Sunday more than 200 people descended on the Kerikeri Sports Complex for a church service followed by a Tonga kai meakai, or feast. The team, dressed in their official uniform of ta’ovala and tupenu (grass skirt and black shirt) dined with supporters and community officials on traditional Pacific delicacies such as taro and kumara, oysters, crab, squid and fish.

Dances were performed by the Kahoa Tauleua Youth, and a malanga (sermon) was delivered by Reverend Penisimani Vete before team manager Aminiasi Kefu said a few words.

“A lot of our players are city slickers," Kefu said. "They lived in Auckland or Wellington and then they moved overseas to cities like Marseille and Tokyo, but for the last two weeks we have been part of the heartland of New Zealand, and we have become better people.

“Words cannot express how much gratitude we have for you.”

The feast, organised by the Kerikeri Business Association and other community groups, including the New Zealand Kahoa Tauleua Trust, was 15 months in the making.

Sad farewell

“This represents a lot of hard work by a lot of people. People were cooking through the night,” said David Keen, the president of the Kerikeri Business Association. The idea to hold an event for the Tonga squad took root during a visit to Tonga last year with his wife.

“I was really taken with the Tongan’s passion for rugby. They were playing it everywhere; in the street, on the beach. We knew they were coming here and had to organise something.”

The fans will not be the only ones sad to see the team depart for Wellington on Monday.

The team will also take their leave reluctantly.

“It’s very sad,” said Aleki Lutui. "Since we’ve been here we’ve been made very welcome, it’s sad to stay for two weeks and now leave tomorrow."