Fans before Tonga's semi-final match at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup. (Photo: Getty).

Mate ma’a Tonga! Legendary league team to inspire a new generation of readers

Can the inspirational rise of Tonga’s rugby league team encourage a love of reading in Pacific kids? The authors of a new book hope so.

What started as an effort to help reduce suicides among Tongan youth has led ‘Alisi Tatafu to write a book, aimed at younger readers, chronicling the miraculous rise of the Tongan men’s rugby league men’s team over the last three years. 

And she launched it this week, along with her co-author David Riley, at Māngere College, where she also teaches, as part of the school’s Tongan Language Week celebrations. 

The book, The Rise of the To’a, follows the journey of a young Tongan boy learning about Tongan culture, interspersed with short stories on each of the 33 rugby league players from the 2017 to 2019 squads, and includes illustrations from the team’s former captain Sika Manu.

To’a means warrior in Tongan, and the meteoric ascent of this tiny island nation’s league team could rival even the most incredible tales of ancient warriors. They have gone from plucky 11th-ranked minnows at the beginning of the Rugby League World Cup in 2017 to now being ranked fourth in the world. Over this period, the side has beaten all the top teams in the world, including New Zealand’s Kiwis, with their most impressive scalp coming last November when they defeated Australia’s world champion Kangaroos 16-12. 

Alongside the sporting achievements there has been an extravagant outpouring of national pride every time the side has played, particularly in New Zealand. Houses have been adorned with red and white flags, fences completely redecorated and myriad cars honking and parading their team’s regalia around the streets of South Auckland. The games themselves have seen masses of red-shirted supporters outnumber the opposition’s fans, while heartily singing hymns or filling the air with frenzied joyous screams. 

A sea of red Tongan rugby league fans at Mt Smart stadium, Auckland during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup (Photo: Getty Images)

And through all this, Tatafu has been there, as an MC at matches and fan events as well as coordinating the management of crowds at the post-match parades. She says it’s been an unexpected divergence from her main role as a teacher.

“I had nothing to do with league before this,” she says. “But I was facilitating a programme on suicide prevention with the junior Tongan age-group team and from there, the managers asked me to MC an event for the men’s side when they came here for the Rugby League World Cup. Since then I’ve been present at every game, as the MC, as well as sharing safety messages to our community in Tongan.” 

The idea for a book came to her in 2017, having seen the inspirational impact the side was having on young people in her community. 

“After the world cup, I was thinking about capturing what these boys had done and the sacrifice they’ve made, and also because I’m a school teacher, I thought it would be good to have a resource to refer to.”

She got in touch with Riley, who’s a children’s author and fellow teacher from Tangaroa College in Ōtara. 

“We want to see children pick up a book and read, and there’s just limited resources for our Pasifika young people. And it’s also about marking this moment, and capturing the last three years of awesomeness that they have provided for our Tongan community.”

From left; co-authors David Riley, ‘Alisi Tatafu and Māngere College principal Tom Webb at the launch of the book The Rise of the To’a (Photo: Justin Latif)

Riley, who has written almost 50 books aimed at Pasifika young adults and children, says the book has been a special project for a number of reasons. 

“I thought it was just going to be a book about rugby league but I soon realised it was a book about Tongan culture and history, and I now understand why there’s all these flags on houses and vans because it’s such a special thing to be Tongan. And I’m really grateful to be part of this.”

Riley actually grew up a few streets away from Māngere College and attended the school. He says collaborating with a current teacher from his alma mater has been an added bonus. 

“For me and ‘Alisi, it’s also about promoting the literacy side of it, and showing the kids that reading can be fun. And what I find exciting is seeing grandparents reading to young kids, and seeing these books bringing multiple generations together.” 

For Tatafu, given her initial involvement with this team was to promote suicide prevention messages, she sees the book as a culmination of that initial purpose.

“I hope that with this book it will inspire our young people. And that it will show that while we face challenges, we can overcome them.”

The Rise of the To’a, by ‘Alisi Tatafu and David Riley (Reading Warrior, 2020) is available from online stockists.  



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