Tongan female rugby league players celebrate winning a medal

Tonga women hope historic rugby league 9s silver will have big impact

cropped 20231120 007A0630 | February 24, 2024
Most of Tonga’s team only started playing rugby league this year, but they won a shock silver medal at Sol2023. Photos: Charlie Ando Bitikolo, Pacific Games News Service

When Tonga’s women’s rugby league 9s team stood on the Sol2023 Pacific Games podium on Wednesday evening admiring their hard-won silver medals, it marked the end of a short but remarkable journey for this pioneering group of women, and likely the start of a new era in rugby league-mad Tonga.

Women in Tonga only began playing rugby league in an organised competition this year, and just five years ago, the question of whether it was appropriate for women to play rugby at all was the subject of a fiery debate, following a government edict that appeared to discourage girls’ participation.

But 2023 has seen an extraordinary turnaround. Tonga’s women’s team at the Pacific Games featured 10 out of 15 players based in the island nation and just five living in New Zealand and Australia, competing under the tutelage of New Zealand-based coach Monica Henry. This contrasts with Tonga’s 13-a-side women’s team that has played tests against the Kiwi Ferns in recent years (including a 28-10 loss in October), fielding a team of players all based in New Zealand or Australia.

Tonga women went through the pool rounds at Sol2023 unbeaten, defeating Samoa 2019 gold medallists Fiji and eventual Sol2023 champions Cook Islands, who they lost to in the gold medal match (16-8).

The Tonga-based contingent only began playing rugby league this year in competitions facilitated by the NRL’s office in Tonga and supported by the Australian Government. They hail not only from the main island of Tongatapu but also from the outer islands, where organised women’s sport remains limited.

Tonga women’s player Siunipa Pahulu, who lives on the outer island of Ha’apai, told the Pacific Games News Service: “I believe that I am the first woman from the island of Ha’apai to represent Tonga in rugby. This is not something that I want to boast about, but I just feel honoured.

“The opportunity that I have had here at the Pacific Games to represent my country is something that will motivate me and push me to improve more. Who knows, my achievements in rugby league might influence other young girls, women and whoever else thinks that rugby league is only for men? Rugby league is a sport for both men and women – we can also do what the boys can do.

“I think that there are some other girls out there who are dreaming of one day representing Tonga, and maybe my experience and achievement here might be encouragement for them to keep going and to follow their dreams.

“You can play rugby league at any age – I just started playing when I was 20 and now I am having the best time ever, winning a silver medal. When I go back to Ha’apai I will encourage girls and women who are interested in rugby league to join tournaments and get a feeling for what it is like to play.”

Pahulu added that she hoped the team’s success would end the debate about women in Tonga playing the rugby codes.

“Whether it is touch or (contact) rugby, just play and forget about the criticism. I know that it is a cultural thing in Tonga, the idea that rugby is not a sport for women and girls but I want to change that so that women and girls feels that they have the right to play. I want to encourage them to dream big and let them know that they can do it because, who knows, they could become one of the best rugby league players and achieve something even bigger than what we have achieved here.”

Tonga captain ‘Ana Ngahe acknowledged the support of those who had kickstarted Tonga’s women’s rugby league journey.

“First, I would like to give all the glory back to God – he is the reason why we made it this far. I am so overwhelmed that we got a silver medal, given this is our first time playing league.

“I am honoured to be part of the team. I am grateful for my teammates, our coach Monica (Henry), my trainer Samisoni ‘Asi, my manager Fane, Tavake (Fangupo) and all the management team back in Tonga, my family and friends for supporting me, and my club, the Kolomotu’a Eagles. They are all the reason why we got this far.”

With Tonga’s men’s rugby league team changing the face of the island nation through their recent global success, Ngahe believes women’s achievement in rugby league has the potential to make a significant impact too.

“From my point of view, rugby league is not about size, gender or background. I guess it’s in our Tongan bloodline, we were born for it. I just want to say to the young generations out there, be yourself, get up, it does not matter if you are small or skinny or young. Have faith in God, everything will be possible – all you have to do is just trust the process.”

By Meleseini Tufui and Joanna Lester, Pacific Games News Service

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