Tension in Tongan Rugby looms large

Tonga’s failure to qualify for the Sevens at this year’s Commonwealth Games has stoked an outburst of anger within the Tongan rugby union.

Current and former 'Ikale Tahi players as well as coaches have taken to social media to raise their concerns.

The TRU has been criticised over not securing sponsorships with former ‘Ikale Tahi and backs coach Siosiua Taumalolo calling on the board to leave it and go home if they couldn't do their jobs.

“…who are we going to blame it’s the Rugby Committee…the Tonga rugby is going from better to worse not because of the coaches, not the players but the board, too much bulls..t,” Taumalolo wrote.

‘Ikale Tahi captain Nili Latu said he is “sick” of seeing Tongan rugby players playing with no guarantee whether they will be paid or not.

“What is happening to the Tongan Sevens rugby players is the same thing happened to the 'Ikale Tahi 1st XV and I feel for them because I came through the same trouble,” Latu wrote in Tongan on his Facebook page.

Former ‘Ikale Tahi captain and current coach of Tonga’s U20 squad, Fe’ao Vunipola, said he felt for the Tongan rugby seven players and called on the public to find sponsors to help them out.

“But how can we compare professional players to amateurish as almost other team in the Sevens tournament players are playing full time, they are paid while our team still play for loyalty and love for the nation,” Vunipola wrote in Tongan on his Facebook page.

Tonga finished without a win at this month’s Wellington Sevens.

They aren't eligible for the upcoming Commonwealth Games since the team failed to enter last year’s qualifying tournament in Fiji.

According to the TRU they missed out because they were unable to pay the NZ$12,000 entry fee.

CEO Fuka Kitekei’aho told Kaniva News the board worked closely with the New Zealand Tongan Rugby Association to take care of the Sevens team while in New Zealand. 

“During the Wellington tournament and afterward we had New Zealand Tongan Rugby Committee with the leadership of the President ‘Emosi Koloto, took good care of our Seven when they were in New Zealand,” Kitekei’aho said in an email to Kaniva News.

“There was a fundraising meeting in Wellington and another one, after the tournament in Auckland. These two fundraising events went directly to players,” he added.

‘Emosi Koloto president of the New Zealand Tongan Rugby Association said they raised about NZ$2000 which was shared equally amongst the ten Sevens players who had attended the fundraising in Auckland.

But it was just pocket money and not a pay agreement he said.

President ‘Epeli Taione did not respond to our email but he wrote on Facebook and said it was normal for the Sevens players to be paid TP$500 per tournament.

He said the Sevens players will be paid when they arrived in Tonga last week.

Kitekei’aho said they are still waiting for sponsors.

“We promised our team that we will remunerate them after the tournament and we are still waiting on our sponsorship. After the contract is done then we can access funds to pay them,” the CEO said.

He said, “Tonga is a small country with a big Team- 'Ikale Tahi. The 'Ikale tours to the Northern Hemisphere cost us about $700,000 to $800,000. The Tonga A, Under 20 and Seven of course add their own cost into this."

“IRB pay for most of the tours for these teams which include airfares, accommodations, medical,  players’ insurances and meals."

“Tonga usually comes in with Team Kit and players allowances. Our players kit for last year cost us about $100,000. Players’ allowances cost us about $100,000 on our last Northern Hemisphere tour."

“To look for sponsorship in a small country with low consumption is not easy because small businesses cannot handle the amount of money TRU requires for some of its programs,” Kitekei’aho said in his email.  

“Looking overseas, once again we have some difficulties because the product that we want to sell is the Ikale Tahi vs a Tier 1 country.  We only have 10 games left for Ikale Tahi before World Cup 15 and out of this we only have 3 Tier 1 games."

“Tier 1 game is important for sponsors for mileages out of TV advertisement and total product exposures."

 “We are aware that this lack of finance is affecting the performances of our teams. Lack of finance does not allow us to have our best team available at all times so our Ikale performances move up and down like a yo-yo. Development is another area of concern.

“However, we never give up and we constantly try our luck with some companies in Europe when the Ikale Tahi is out there.

“But the donation from this avenue is limited and one off event.

“With all these difficulties in raising constant finance being said, we are only left with the Government of Tonga as our only hope of finance."

“Last year we had $100,000 assistance from Tongan Government.

“We are aware that seeking money from Government is not easy but we are trying to persuade them that giving grant to rugby annually is an investment because our players overseas are remitting money back home to drive the economy," the CEO said.

Kitekei’aho also highlighted how funding from the IRB does not cover payments for players.

“Most of the IRB fund is to go to costs I have already described; air tickets, accommodations, meals, medical, players insurance and development programs through participation in schools and communities. These areas absorb all grants IRB is giving to Tonga."

“It is TRU’s responsibility to pay players and provide playing kit, training kit and casual,” the CEO said.

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