An evening amongst my fellow countrymen – and oddly shaped balls…

It’s unusual for anyone who knows me even remotely well not to know the circumstances of my birth. Or, to be more specific, the location of my birth. It comes up in conversations about birthdays (because I have two); about passports (because mine gets scrutinised for having a peculiar place of birth); and whenever anyone asks what my middle name is (it’s Lesieli – no, that’s not English).

Long story short: I was born on the island of Tongatapu, the largest island in the island kingdom of Tonga, in a hospital on the outskirts of its capital, Nuku’alofa. My parents were Methodist Mission Partners there and I was born 6 months before the end of their 3 year period of service. No, I don’t have a Tongan passport (not eligible, although I’m sure I could claim political asylum should I need it). No, I can’t speak the language (bar a few random phrases). Yes, Tonga is pronounced the way I say it – it’s not an emphasised ‘ng’. No, my sister wasn’t born there – she lays claim to the glamorous London borough of Brent.

Tongan beachDon’t you want to step right into that photo??

Tonga isn’t known for many things. In fact, I can think of four that might possibly spring to readers’ minds:

1. Queen Salote of Tonga’s appearance at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. (One for older readers.)
2. Jonah From Tonga – Chris Lilley’s politically incorrect portrayal of a teenage islander in Australia.
3. Tonga’s monarch (the king who died in 2006) being the heaviest monarch in the world – according to the Guinness Book of Records. [Warning: Daily Mail link – the only paper likely to include the title in the headline of their obituary!]
4. The Tongan rugby team.

The latter has usually been my most successful channelling of Tongan-ness – for a start, as they usually qualify for the World Cup, many of my rugby loving friends have actually heard of the country. Plus, it’s without question the sport in which Tonga excels the most (although they did have an athlete in the Winter Olympics…) and therefore I can claim a certain level of pride in being a Tonga fan. Having said that, supporting Tonga against England in the first round of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in a student bar during my first week at university was possibly not one of my wisest decisions. (England scored over 100, Tonga did not.)

When the fixture list for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was released (a very long time ago) I noticed that there were some great Tonga matches in the line up – against New Zealand in Newcastle and a match in my former home city of Gloucester. Through my sister’s school connections, she and I acquired tickets for Tonga V Georgia at Kingsholm (in doing so, being the only ones in our circle of friends to have RWC tickets!) next September – the excitement was palpable.

Thanks to a Maths teacher with both a good memory and membership of a rugby club, Mim discovered that we could have an international rugby dress rehearsal at the same ground, 10 months early. Tonga were set to play the USA at Kingsholm and her colleague remembered my connection and passed on a flyer for tickets. And thus, last Saturday, we joined a throng of rugby fans as they marched through the city towards the ground.

Luckily, we had in our party someone who actually knew the rules of rugby properly! Sally may have been older than the rest of us by some way, and might not have looked like a rugby fan, but she knew her stuff. Not that we didn’t – we knew some things! (Well, at least I knew more than I did about American Football!) We were comforted that we were by no means the most ignorant in the crowd when this exchange was overheard behind us:
American woman: “It’s interesting that every time a team scores a goal, there’s an advert for ‘Try’ on the screen.”
Her husband: “That’s because it’s a try, not a goal.”

I’d already had a bit of a chat with the couple as they’d commented on the commentator’s pronunciation of ‘Tonga’ as the players streamed on to the pitch – I explained about the dipthong and they asked how I knew. We found it amusing that a US born person and a Tonga born person were sat adjacent to each other at a match between the two countries, in Gloucester.

Goal! That’s what I call a great view!

As for the rugby, well, it was thrilling! We were right behind those posts that look a little like Quidditch goals, but aren’t. [I jest.] Literally, right behind – second row with no one in front, dead centre. Instead of being thrilling, penalties and conversions became terrifying as oval missiles hurtled up and then down towards our heads. During the first half, when it was Tonga’s goal, we greeted each with a “Yay!!! Come on Tonga!! Ooooooohhhhhhhh” *Covers head and ducks* 

'Ikale TahiThe ‘Ikale Tahi in action.

The crowd were unpartisan, cheering both sides at every opportunity, but once it was apparent that Tonga would dominate, cheers of “Tonga! Tonga! Tonga!” emanated from around the stands. Combined with the fact that many Gloucester rugby fans chose to wear their usual Cherry & White attire, thus matching Tonga’s colours, and it could almost have been a home match. As for us, my friends and family joined in the fun and wore red and white – bobble hats; a Tonga flag; my new RWC Tonga T-shirt; and a Tongan scarf Amazon had suggested Juliet buy when she bought the flag – an early Christmas gift for me.

Doris & Flag

There were others with Tongan flags too. I’d thought we might be the only papalangi [Tongan for white people] cheering on the ‘Ikale Tahi [the Sea Eagles – the Tongan team’s name] with flags and t-shirts, but others seemed to have discovered the flag was only £2.80 online and decided to acquire one. Perhaps they assumed that Tonga would be the underdog to the USA and deserved some extra support. Not so, this was a match Tonga should have won and they did! USA are 5 places below Tonga in the international rankings (when have you seen the USA play rugby??) and sure enough, the final score was 12 to 40.

Match Panorama

For two hours, I found myself amongst more Tongans than I had been since probably 2008 (my most recent trip to New Zealand and a service in a Tongan church). I had good cause to celebrate my island of birth and once again was grateful that my parents chose to bring me up with a healthy appreciation and knowledge of my unusual birthplace.