Expectation has Tonga feeling the pressure

TONGAN captain Sika Manu says Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita have tapped into the emotions of their "new" nation with a first-hand view of the Pacific Island's World Cup enthusiasm.

Auckland-born Taumalolo and Sydney-born Fifita handed back jerseys and far more lucrative World Cup campaigns for New Zealand and Australia respectively to represent Tonga.

They and their Tongan teammates will play for the nation of their heritage and receive about $2000 for the labours.

"I want us to do well, just for the people in Tonga who were gave us such a great reception when we were there preparing for the World Cup,'' Manu said.

"They don't have much money. They generally live off their plantation and to see them spend money to support Tongan rugby league is awesome.

Tongan captain Sika Manu. AAP Image/Steve Pohlner
Tongan captain Sika Manu. AAP Image/Steve Pohlner

"To see all the red and white (banners and streamers in national colours) on the streets of Nukuʻalofa, wishing us well.

"Having Jason and Andrew is massive for the team and for Tonga as well. Usually we see players go the other way (to play for Australia or New Zealand).

"Woolfy (coach Kristian Woolf) has done a good job. This is my third World Cup and the talent in each team, teams like Samoa and Italy, is so much better. At the last World Cup in 2013, we were struggling to find players.

"It's been great to see rugby league get a little bigger in Tonga all the time. Every village will have a rugby league team. It's not as big as rugby union, but it's slowly growing. We are slowly turning the rugby union players into rugby league players.''

Townsville Blackhawks coach Woolf said a week in Tonga had reinforced to Fifita why he made the right personal decision to give up an Australian jersey.

Manu, 31, is well-remembered in Australia for playing in Melbourne's 2012 premiership side before a stint with Hull which has brought him two Challenge Cup winner's medals.

"Everyone in our team for this World Cup has been playing NRL or Super League, so it's the most professional team we've had to for Tonga,'' he said.

Crowd favourite Jason Taumalolo runs out at Callendar Park in a World Cup trial against Italy.
Crowd favourite Jason Taumalolo runs out at Callendar Park in a World Cup trial against Italy.

"The expectations are a lot higher than usual, and the boys feel a little bit of pressure which we need to control.

"It's my job and Kristian's job to keep everyone on the rails.

"I'd love to see Tonga play in the Four Nations one day, competing with Australia, New Zealand and England. If we have some good results in the World Cup, hopefully one day we will.''

Manu played 88 NRL games for Melbourne and 61 more for Penrith before moving to England, where he has one more year to run on his contract.

"I'm a bit homesick, so I'll see what happens after that,'' he said.

Woolf's job is make sure the Tongan players don't overlook the importance of their first game on Sunday in Cairns against Scotland.

Some of the Scottish players had a hitout in an embarrassing 50-14 loss to a NSW Country under-23 side on Friday night.

"We are ranked No. 11 and we are playing the teams ranked No. 2, No. 4 and No.5. We lost to Scotland by two points in 2013, and missed the quarter-finals,'' Woolf said.