Opportunity of a lifetime for Tonga rookie

Opportunity of a lifetime for Tonga rookie

His name might get lost in a Tonga squad brimming with NRL talent, but the significance of Sione Vea's selection for the Test against Fiji cannot be understated. 

The 20-year-old is the sole player from the local Tongan competition in Kristian Woolf's squad, with the up-and-coming youngster set to benefit greatly from his week in a highly-professional environment.  

Tavake Fangupo, Secretary General for the Tongan National Rugby League based in Tonga, explained the decision to include Vea in the squad. 

"For the last three or four years, we've always included a domestic player from Tonga," Fangupo told NRL.com at the Pacific Test fan day in Blacktown.  

"It's an incentive for the best player from our local competition to get the opportunity to come and develop and hang out with the NRL boys throughout the Pacific Test.

"Having Sione here will be a great experience for him because he's never travelled to Australia or New Zealand. It's great that he's been able to work closely with some of the Tongan boys who know how to speak the language."

Vea caught the eye of national selectors playing out wide for Toloa Old Boys, who have forged a relationship with Sydney's Newington College and celebrated their 150th anniversary just last year. 

It's unlikely Vea will get any game time on Saturday evening, but his time in camp will hold him in good stead for the Rugby League World Cup at the end of the year.  

"That was one of the criteria that the head coach was looking for when he asked us to select players from Tonga. He wanted an outside back who was 23 years or younger and Sione – as a 20-year-old – fit the bill," he said. 

"He's a young up-and-coming player so hopefully an event like this inspires him for the World Cup."

Fangupo admitted rugby league had faced its fair share of challenges over the years but was brimming with pride when he described the direction it was heading in. 

Tonga is set to host the Pacific Games in 2019 which has seen an infrastructure boom across the country, leading to calls for Mate Ma'a to host a Test in the near future, just as Samoa did in 2016. 

Importantly, the national competition now has a major sponsor which has helped the tournament grow to a 16-team format. 

"This year we had Digicel Telecommunications come on board to sponsor the competition so we called it the Digicel Cup. Hopefully it's a relationship that we can continue to build over the years so they can help rugby league in Tonga grow," he said. 

"Exposure is really good for us because Tonga is a country dominated by rugby union, so having these incentives helps encourage participation from a grassroots level."