He was labelled a defector by Kiwis but league superstar Jason Taumalolo has been hailed a hero in Tonga – and now he has even been gifted an estate there.
Taumalolo was the focal point – on and off the field – of Mate Ma’a Tonga’s extraordinary Rugby League World Cup campaign after he ruffled feathers by choosing to play for Tonga rather than the Kiwis.
But his decision may have paid off with his endeavours now being tangibly recognised in Tonga.
The Cowboys lock has been given land in his mother’s village.
Teammate Tui Lolohea was also afforded the same honour.
“Jason and Tui were given land by the nobles in the villages of their families,” said Tongan coach Kristian Woolf.
“I guess it was a reward for what they have done… it’s certainly taken the nation on an amazing ride.
Tonga made it all the way to the semifinals in the Rugby League World Cup before being bested by England in a fraught encounter on November 25.
The team’s near-fairytale journey through the tournament prompted an outpouring of support from Tongans in New Zealand with cars, homes and people all proudly decked out in Tongan flags and the team colours of red and white.
Woolf is now back in his native Queensland – though many of his team remain in Tonga – and reflected on an amazing few days in the Kingdom.
“It’s been outstanding,” said Woolf. “The welcome and reception we got before the tournament was amazing but it was even crazier this time. We almost couldn’t leave the motel. There was just that many people sitting outside all the time, wanting to get photos and pictures and be a part of things.”
Woolf said the team had left an enduring legacy.
“I’m very proud of how our boys conducted themselves on and off the field,” he said. “But what I have been the proudest of is the way they’ve brought people together. The way they’ve brought every single Tongan – in Tonga, in New Zealand, in Australia – the way they’ve brought all those people together was exceptional.
“But it wasn’t just the Tongans; before the England game, we were walking down the main street of Auckland and people from all across the Pacific were wishing you the best, a real sign of unity.”
Woolf also wanted to shut the door on any lingering protests about last weekend’s game, in the wake of Auckland based-Tongan lawyer Nalesoni Tupou’s comments about referee Matt Cecchin on Friday.
“We are proud of what we have achieved and extremely appreciative of all the support from the community,” said Woolf. “Even after the game, with the thousands of people who came to our [Auckland] hotel. I know it was labelled a protest, but it felt more a celebration and show of respect towards what we have done.”
“Our players and officials are all professional and we understand that sometimes decisions go against you. We are disappointed by it but we have all moved on. And that is what everyone needs to do now; we are not going to get any result out of questioning whether that particular referee should have been refereeing a game. That is something that myself and the team want to distance ourselves from and everyone needs to move on.”