Naked, pedigreed and determined – Tongan players in the All Blacks-Lions clash

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(L-R) Ngani Laumape, Malakai Feletoa, Toby Faletau and Mako Vunipola

One of them posed nude for an American sports magazine, two of them have pedigrees as  sons of Tongan internationals and one of them returned to the game he played as a boy to make it into the All Blacks.

They are the four Tongans who represented the All Blacks and the British and Irish Lions in last week’s final clash, which in ended in a 15-all draw.

And, except for a shoulder injury, there could have been a fifth Tongan player on the field.

The presence of the four Tongans split support for the home team and the visitors among Tongan rugby fans.

After a controversial start to the year with allegations and denials surrounding a rugby match in Tonga, Malakai Fekitoa helped focus support for the All Blacks among at least some members of Tonga’s rugby community during their clash with the Lions.

As Kaniva News reported earlier this year, Fekitoa was embroiled in a controversy over a rugby match he organised in the kingdom.

He has kept himself in the spotlight by posing nude for an American sporting magazine and signing to a French club.

Fekitoa, who was born in Ha’apai, has continued to gain publicity for other reasons, including agreeing to pose naked for ESPN The Magazine.

He is believed to be the first athlete from New Zealand – and only the second rugby player poses to have shed their clothes for the sports magazine.

He signed a contract with French club Toulon after not making the original cut for the All Blacks. However he was called in for the third test and there have been questions in the media about whether he will now try to get out of his contract.

Joining Fekitoa in the New Zealand line-up was midfielder Ngani Laumape. Laumape,  who has just signed a two year contract with the Hurricanes, made his debut for the New Zealanders against the Lions.

He has a quieter image than Fekitoa, and has drawn attention as a former schoolboy union player who switched codes and then came back to his original game with a dream of one day being selected for the All Blacks.

When he was told he had been selected to play against the Lions, he couldn’t quite believe he had made it.

Meanwhile, other Tongan rugby fans, backed the Lions because of the presence of Toby Faletau and Mako Vunipola.

Faletau was born in Tofoa and is the son of Tongan international Kuli Faletau.

Faletau senior played for the kingdom in the 1991 Rugby World Cup and moved to Wales in 1987 to join Ebbw Vale.

Toby Faletau was a successful junior player, being named player of the year during his time at Filton College’s rugby academy.

He now plays for Bath and Wales.

Mako Vunipola, who plays for the Saracens and England, had already been capped for the Lions twice before the recent tour.

Born in Sydney, he moved to Wales with his family as a child.

Chief among Vunipola‘s supporters in Tonga was his father, Tonga Rugby Union Chief Executive Fe’ao Vunipola.

Fe’ao and uncles Manu and ‘Elisi all played for the ‘Ikale Tahi.

Radio New Zealand reported that Mako, 26, would almost certainly have been joined by his younger brother Billy in the test squad, but he had to withdraw because of a shoulder injury.

The main points

  • Tongan rugby fans were divided in their support during the All Blacks-Lions clash because of the presence of Tongan players on both sides.
  • Lining up for New Zealand were Malakai Fekitoa and Ngani Laumape.
  • Playing for the Lions were two sons of Tongan internationals, Toby Faletau and Mako Vunipola.
  • Vunipola‘s father is Tonga Rugby Union Chief Executive Fe’ao Vunipola.

For more information

Ngani Laumape has taken a slightly unconventional route to the All Blacks jumper

Ex-All Black Malakai Fekitoa bares all in hot ESPN shoot

Malakai Fekitoa having second thoughts on overseas move

Player profiles of the 41 Lions 

Tonga Rugby CEO all in for Lions

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