My toughest battles were with the guys in charge
By Hale T-Pole
It wasn’t easy for a Tongan boy arriving in New Zealand, aged 18.
I studied English in school but struggled with language. My cousin, who picked me up, stopped at a petrol station, got out of the car and told me to put petrol in it.
I’ll never forget the moment; I didn’t know what to say to the fella in the shop, which pump was petrol, which was diesel or what the hell was going on. I was shit scared.
Needless to say, my cousin found it absolutely hilarious.
That day I never thought that I’d go on to play Super Rugby, play at Rugby World Cups or that I’d fight for the rights of Pacific Island players. Mate, I still didn’t know what petrol or diesel was!
As soon as I left Tonga, I wanted to get back to Tonga.
I was an island boy that loved the island life. I went to a boarding school of 1500 boys where we played a lot of footy. I remember watching the 1995 Rugby World Cup on a small TV. Loved it.
My parents were both police officers in Tonga so I wanted to be a cop and we actually lived on the police campus for a few years.
They wanted the best for their kids and applied for permanent residency in New Zealand. At the same time, I got a scholarship to Japan but opted to go to the famous Wesley College in Auckland instead, where I also was offered a scholarship. There was just too much to digest, too much noise in New Zealand. I was supposed to captain the First XV back in Tonga the following year so I was in two minds whether to go back to my school in Tonga and fulfil that. Somehow, the school convinced me to stay. I don’t know what I would be doing now if I returned to Tonga that time.
From there, I played in New Zealand schools and U20s, but it never crossed my mind that I’d play professional rugby.
As a schoolboy I played a curtain raiser to an Otago ITM match and after the final whistle, the Otago team manager tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to play professionally. I was paid a pittance by today’s standards, but hey, I wasn’t complaining.
My debut for Tonga is one of the highlights of my career – a Rugby World Cup repechage qualifier against Korea in 2006. I got the bug and never looked back.
Playing for Tonga is an amazing experience that most players who play in Rugby World Cups will, thankfully, never experience.
But, before I get into that let me just say, there were some great highlights. Rugby World Cup 2007 is just one. We were in the same pool as Samoa and that became one of the first games to sell out. We came out firing. Of course, with the game on a knife-edge and millions watching across the world, I would have to go and get red-carded with 10 minutes to go.
It wasn’t a surprise. It was war out there. Samoa hammered us 50-0 a few months earlier so we were keen to get stuck in. I was responsible for a few late hits, I smashed someone else in a ruck with my elbow and then Jonathan Kaplan gave me a red card after I hit one of their subs while cleaning out another ruck. I walked out of the stadium in anger at myself but then had to run back when we won the game 10 minutes later!
When you play the Samoans and the Fijians in a home game it’s a nightmare…but I loved it. Sometimes the refs just let the high tackles go – it’s hard to police it, man! We killed each other but there was always a good laugh with the boys after. That’s what Rugby is about.
But despite the physicality on the pitch, some of the toughest battles were with the Tongan Union.
They banned me from playing for the national team for two years. Two years without representing the country of my birth.
Why? ‘Cos I spoke out against the bullshit. Myself and Nili Latu fought for basic things for the players…just basic pay and conditions really. We threatened to strike and we given a ban; one that cost me a place at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand.
We weren’t getting paid at all. We had to pay for our own flights and rarely got reimbursed. We had the same jerseys week to week. We knew the union was getting funded to pay for hotels but we were sleeping in Church halls.
Nobody in the Union would listen. There was no player association. Somebody had to fight and I was playing Super Rugby with the Highlanders at the time so I had a voice, I guess. I didn’t need the money but, for example, ended up buying boots for some players living in Tonga! It was ridiculous.
“They banned me from playing for the National team for 2 years. Why? Cos I spoke out against the bullshit.” . . . Tongan 🇹🇴 legend and @pacificrugbyplayers Chairman Hale T.Pole doesn’t hold back: READ ➡️ bit.ly/HaleTPole (Link in Bio) . . . #tonga #rugby #RugbyWorldCup #players #Samoa #Pacific #PacificRugby #Oceania #Highlanders #Ospreys
I’ll never forget a tour to America in June 2013. We had a bunch of fundraising concerts set up and the plan was that the committee would get the money and then “distribute” it to us.
Instead, myself and Nili Latu went up to the cash desk at the end of the night, grabbed the cash takings, went back to our hotels and counted the money before getting players up in the middle of the night to pay them! If we didn’t take that money, we would have never seen it again.
That’s what inspires me in my new role as Chairman of Pacific Rugby Players.
Leadership came naturally to me. I was able to manage both sides – players and management. Some managers never lived in Tonga so I was the link between the guys on the field and the guys up in the box.
Some island boys need help when they move to Europe, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a massive culture shift. But that’s not to say Pacific players should just accept handouts all the time. Of course, they need help…but Players Associations aren’t there to connect your Sky box or setup the Wifi in your kitchen. The players need to get on the front foot.
Player Development Managers are crucial to keeping our guys in the right frame of mind, adapting them to the culture and help focus on education and career development. It’s also very important that we set up a Global Agent Accreditation scheme. Too many Island boys have fallen victim to unscrupulous agents who are trying to making a quick buck – especially guys who end up in Europe.
Some agents present the prospect of lots of money but then put dodgy contracts in front of the player – all for fast money. It’s not good enough anymore. We’re there for the players; they just need to get in touch with us before they sign anything.
I’m looking forward to the new role. Working with International Rugby Players in Dublin, we’re going to grow, educate Pacific players, grow our voice in the Rugby world and do some great things.
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