Tonga's bonds forged in Northern England
A Tongan community located in the north of England has emerged as a potential key to Mate Ma'a Tonga's 2017 Rugby League World Cup campaign following the nation's 20-point win over Cook Islands on Saturday night.
Hulking Huddersfield prop Ukuma Ta'ai – who led the war dance prior to facing the Kukis – said the community of expat players of Tongan heritage has made his stay in the Super League all the more easier.
Born in the Tongan capital Nuku'alofa, former Warrior Ta'ai said his past three years at the Giants has been a seamless transition thanks to the monthly catch-ups with his fellow statesmen.
"I'm excited to hang over there a lot because I'm not the only Tongan there. I know a lot of my fellow Tongans and I travel around England to see them and get together often with them," Ta'ai told NRL.com from Campbelltown Stadium on Saturday.
"It's a family reunion. Us Tongan players like to catch up once a week and if not we don't go any longer apart from one another than once a month because there are a lot of us Tongans in the Super League now.
"We've started to build up a little community over there. That's why I was so happy when Mahe Fonua and Sika Manu signed with Hull FC because then I can introduce them to our little community as well. It's good for us.
"There would be about 20 or so people in this little community. And we always catch up and have a feed and everything like that. All of us when we see each other, we feel good. It's amazing."
Along with Ta'ai, Manu and Fonua they will be joined by Salford-bound Ben Murdoch-Masila in England from 2016, while others from their last World Cup campaign in St Helens back-rower Atelea Vea and Leigh's Fuifui Moimoi remain.
With a bunch of his Tongan teammates set to join him – and with Ta'ai re-signing with Super League semi-finalists Huddersfield for another season – the 28-year-old said an NRL return isn't a big priority considering how good he has it in the northern hemisphere.
"I'm not really sure. Because I love playing in England, the lifestyle is different and it's more like family time for me," Ta'ai said.
"If I were to receive a decent offer then sure I'll think about coming back but if not I'm very content hanging around in the Super League."
A big part of Tonga's victory over the Cook Islands on Saturday, Ta'ai was buoyed by his team's ability to stick together after a few low years on the international stage.
"You feel emotional because of the enormous situation. It's good too that the boys feel the spirit of our culture," he said.
"This is really cool for us to qualify for Tonga because you can't predict whether you'll be picked again. We now have to stick together and give everything and most importantly be happy we have made the World Cup.
"I was excited to meet the younger boys and everything like that, the last time I played for Tonga was in 2013 so I was excited to get the call-up and spend time back in camp."