Tonga fans repeat wild World Cup scenes
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf and his players promised to make fans proud in their historic Test against Australia after more than 5000 of them turned out to revive memories of last year's fanatical World Cup support at an official welcome in Auckland on Wednesday night.
There was barely a car without a Tongan flag or a person not wearing red at the reception held at Manauka, where supporters waited for up to three hours for the team to arrive after their flight was delayed in Sydney.
"It is quite exciting, it is a massive turn out," said prop Andrew Fifita, who turned his back on Australia to play for Tonga at the World Cup. "I don't think any other team could have fans to compare to this."
The success of the Mate Ma'a at the World Cup and the controversial refereeing decision that denied the team a shot at the Kangaroos in the final after Fifita was disallowed a try in the dying seconds of their semi-final against England were fresh in the minds of the players and fans.
"The boys done well last year and deserved a shot at No.1, the Australian team, so for us to get to play them is not only huge for us as a team but huge for us as a country," lock Jason Taumalolo said.
"Last year's atmosphere was great, and I am sure this year will be no different. The boys have been talking about it the whole way here. I can't wait."
The October 20 Test at Mount Smart Stadium is heading for a sell-out and Auckland is fast becoming a sea of red, with some fans having even resorted to painting their houses in the colours of Tonga.
"When we were on the bus [from the airport] we saw the houses done up, it is awesome," Fifita said.
Tonga captain Sika Manu added: "To just turn up in Auckland and see this again means a lot to us and we are very confident we can do a good job next week."
After a traditional Tongan welcome, each player was introduced to the crowd and coach Kristian Woolf, who has added former Wests Tigers and Fiji coach Michael Potter to his staff, addressed the fans.
"Obviously last year through the World Cup your support was outstanding and we loved every minute of it so it is great to get back to New Zealand and have this sort of support again," Woolf said.
"We have got a great group of men who are going to make you very proud in a week and a half's time."
Prop Addin Fonua-Blake is the only member of the 19-man squad named by Woolf for the Test who did represent Tonga at the World Cup as he played for the New Zealand team beaten by Mate Ma’a in Hamilton.
The Tonga team will go into camp in Hamilton while Australia play the Kiwis at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday and will then move to Auckland next week to finalise their preparations.