2007 Island Hop Tour

Thursday, July 19 2007 @ 09:41 pm ACST

Contributed by: Ash Nugent

Tonga is a Pacific nation comprised of four island groups, Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niua’s. The latter three, referred to as the ‘outer islands’, are (apparently) frequently overlooked when it comes to sports programs in the country. Keen to make the most of this, the Tonga Australian Football Association (TAFA) visited two of the areas under what was labelled the ‘2007 Island Hop Tour’. In an era when Aussie Rules has been under pressure to reduce some physical aspects of the past, particularly to alleviate the perceived trend of parents guiding their children towards the lower contact sport soccer, it was interesting to hear that in some parts of Tonga locals thought footy might not catch on due to lacking masculinity and physicality. But overall it sounds like the tour was a solid step in the right direction.

TAFA outlined a series of objectives they wanted to achieve by the tour’s end, which are listed below, along with a brief review of the areas which were visited. The tour itself had positives and negatives, but still managed to build on prior work done in the area, and paved the way for future work by TAFA ‘Development Officers’. Information and summary courtesy of Mike Russell.

1. To run coaching clinics in local primary and high schools.
2. Run clinics for open age adults.
3. Increase the public's awareness of Australian football through discussion and demonstration.
4. Source locals who are interested in establishing an Australian football committee.

Eua is actually part of the main group of islands, Tongatapu, although from a sporting perspective, it more closely resembles the 'outer islands' and this made it a must-stop on the tour. The island is home to 5,000 people, cricket is the most popular sport, with rugby union and league played socially. Many locals had at least a basic knowledge of Aussie Rules (the AFL is played on the Australia Network, which is aired through Tonfon).

The tour saw social kicks of the footy with locals as well as clinics held at two primary schools. A total of 92 boys and 33 girls were involved in the clinics, with Michael Russell (AYAD) and Lotu Pangi (Development Officer) assisted by school teachers. Parties from both schools expressed interest in involving Australian football in their school’s curriculum in the future.

Clinics were also held during the island’s high school athletics carnival, with 116 boys from Eua High School and Hofanga Hau Free Wesleyan College participating. Once more teachers were impressed, and TAFA was welcomed to return to offer similar clinics in the future, with a regular football program also a possibility.

Knowledge of Australian football in Ha’apai was miniscule, due to no television and limited internet services. It is protocol for permission to be sought from the Ministry of Education prior to entering primary schools in Ha’apai, something TAFA were unable to achieve, thus no primary schools were visited this trip.

Russell, this time joined by Aleki Tuiono was able to visit one high school, with 75 boys from three year levels involved in the clinic. It was concluded with a 12-a-side match, which continued to improve as the match progressed. The school involved was impressed with the game and keen for TAFA to return at a future date, and expressed interest in having football join the school’s sports program.

Whilst in Ha’apai, TAFA were fortunate enough to meet with Viliami Latu, president of Ha’api Rugby Union and firmly involved in school sport on the island. Latu was impressed with what TAFA has achieved in such a small timeframe but also spoke of hurdles which may be faced, such as that the game may be viewed as lacking masculinity and physicality (ironic when you consider that newly established football bodies elsewhere in the world are trying to break down the perception that football is violent).

Acknowledged as a long term project, TAFA is confident it can have some effect on the sports scene in Ha’apai and were confident that showing locals (and Latu) footage of football in Australia would dispel these ‘negative’ notions of the game.

In Vava'u, Russell and Tuiono were again TAFA's representatives. It was in Vava’u that the greatest progress was made. The two held nightly ‘training sessions’ at Kelana College’s rugby field, in the hope of being joined by curious locals. On their first night, joined by two German tourists, they were asked to leave when the local rugby club began training. As they left, they were pulled aside by Falaleu Rugby Club secretary Lisiete Paea, who was keen to learn just why they had made the trip from Tongatapu. Upon hearing their explanation they were invited to the club’s committee meeting later that night.

“We apprehensively arrived at the meeting to find a number of curious faces. Mr Paea had introduced us and gave us the opportunity to explain to the group what we had told him earlier in the evening. Upon the conclusion of our presentation, the committee conversed briefly in their local language, before Mr. Paea explained that the Falaleu Rugby Club would like to set up an Aussie Rules committee in Vava’u”.

The committee explained that they saw in the sport the ability to offer local children great opportunities and themselves a way to keep fit in the off season (once again perhaps some irony as football was established in Australia to keep cricketers fit during winter. Whilst both sports still share strong ties, football has surpassed cricket in popularity in Australia). The committee were happy to seek other clubs and fellow committees to become involved in the sport, and seemed keen to see Australian football played in local schools.

Unfortunately not everything went to plan on the island. Following the meeting with the Falalue committee, a program was set up by Mr. Pungatoa Ma of the Ministry of Education for Russell and Tuiono, to visit and teach football at local schools, but it was disrupted by adverse weather conditions. They still managed to reach 98 primary school aged children in two clinics, with Ma present at both. He even expressed support for the program to be run full-time.

"Although success in terms of meeting the island hop tour objectives varied throughout each island group, overall the program was a success. The outer islands are crying out for greater sport opportunities. The Aussie Rules school development programs (based on the Auskick model) is unique in Tonga, as other sports generally focus on school competitions, so it wasn't just the sport that was new to the outer islands, but the manner in which we organised it really appealed to them.

The enthusiasm to get Aussie Rules up and running by the newly formed Vava'u committee was very impressive. One of the primary objectives of our next AYAD is to get up to Vava'u and supply them with equipment, coaching and training. There are also a number of local business opportunities we feel we can utilise in Vava'u. We really think the game has a big future within the island group.

In summary, the island hop tour probably had more impact in Vava'u, than the other island groups, however foundations were set for future development officers to build upon. The future of the game probably looks more prosperous in Eua, than Ha'apai, because of its close proximity to the main island."

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