The rise and possible fall of Tonga

- Written by Keith Whitelock

OPINION: How the worlds 7th smallest economy came to hold the key to international rugby league

Pinning a sports international growth purely to the diaspora of a small island nation is a pretty risky thing to do. Then again, the rise of Tonga was more a group of players coming together in an ad hoc fashion more than a well thought out strategic plan by a central governing body.

The real question is, how long can Tonga field a side capable of winning a World Cup side for? The obvious place to search for this answer is around emigration rates. If emigration from the island of Tonga to New Zealand and Australia stopped overnight, then you would a maximum of three generations of players capable of flying the rugby league flag for Tonga under the Grandparent rule.

The population of Tonga is just under 110,000 with a net growth rate of 0.4% pa. Whilst this percentage is on part with France and just under Britain, it is a very low growth rate due to the small base of people it reflects. The low growth rate is in large part due to a high emigration rate. All but a handful of people leaving Tonga end up in New Zealand (26,440), the US (20,515) or Australia (10,613). On average, Tonga grows by 1 person every 12 hours (or 2 people per day)

Exactly what does this mean for Rugby League though? Well it means that the risk of Tonga being a fly by night team is reduced due to Tongan’s leaving for Australia and New Zealand primarily under the economic migrant definition, rather than one off event (i.e Vietnamese migration to Australia after the war). Still, the reality of the situation is that Tonga is too small to ever really field a competitive team based solely around players living and playing the game in Tonga. Even if rugby league replaced rugby union as the number 1 sport in Tonga, it’s still not a reasonable expectation given Australia currently claims to have 466,000 registered players, more than 4 times the total population of Tonga.

Mate Ma'a Tonga are now so well supported that they are now genuinely able to become self-sustainable based on gate takings alone if managed correctly. Sponsorship would likely see a natural shift from sole traders in Western Sydney to genuine corporations seeking the value of exposure. This needs to be the next step to ensure Tonga are here to stay. As much as we’d all love to see Tonga playing New Zealand in Nukuʻalofa (the Tongan Capital), the game would almost certainly make a loss. The result of this is that New Zealand essentially has two international teams using the country as their home ground. The Kiwis already struggle to ends meet given they don’t have a profit-making domestic competition to prop them up like Australia and England do. The result of this “shared home ground” conundrum is that it limits the options for both the Tongan Rugby League (TRL) and the New Zealand Rugby league (NZRL) to turn a profit. They’re almost forced into playing each other regularly to remain solvent. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The recent Kiwis test against Australia only drew 12,000 people almost certainly due to fans holding off for Tonga vs Australia game the week after.

A pessimist could look at this as an already small market being divided into two. An optimist could look at this situation as an opportunity to double to the size of the market. No longer do New Zealand need to entice Australia or England to travel to play them. They have a ready-made competitor who are desperate to play them in front of a huge fanbase. The default position of both organizations should be to play each other at least 3 time per year in New Zealand with the rest of their profit-making content coming from games against England and Australia (or even Samoa and Fiji to a lesser extent).

Nothing is guaranteed in life. Who knows how long Tonga can call upon Taumololo, Fafita, Fusita and the Panga Jr’s of the world? We do know they have these players in the short term though so the under resourced TRL will have to battle to play as many games as they can against Tier 1 nations with a fair split of the gate takings. Use this exposure to generate a larger sponsorship portfolio with any excess earnings going towards wise investments such as managed funds or less risky bond yields.

Fans of the game around the world hope to one day look back in 50 years at the 2017 Tongan Rugby League Team as just the tip of the ice berg of the small island nation who managed to topple the giants for decades to come.

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