21 September 2011

The game that roused an entire capital city


Dr. Ungatea, principal of a local high school, in her outfit
"GO IKALE TAHI!!!" we heard from every corner of the neighbourhood last night. The Rugby World Cup started on the 9th of this month, and the Tongan team, the Ikale Tahi, just made their first win of the tournament last night, playing against Japan.

Translated as the Sea Eagles, the team was officially named as such by the King, and their arrival two weeks ago in New Zealand, was heralded by two-hour delays at the airport as every Tongan in a hundred-kilometer radius arrived in red-bannered trucks to greet their team. It broke the record as the largest fan turnout during this world cup. We read each article with increasing delight, as the reports came in of a "sea of red and white," the Ikale Tahi's colours, and of cars facing the wrong way on the freeway as their owners' fervour got the best of them and they danced in front of their vehicles.



It wasn't too different here in Nuku'alofa. Since several weeks before the tournament started, the city center has been enveloped in red; banners hang from almost every shop front, cars sport full-size Tongan flags draped on their roofs, houses are lost in a flutter of red and white flags lining the streets.

The DVD shop supports Ikale Tahi
Everyone was in red and white at TDB, too
The frenzy of Ikale Tahi enthusiasm reached its peak the day that the World Cup opened- with a match between Tonga and New Zealand's All Blacks. (New Zealand seemed bursting with enthusiasm, too; Air New Zealand has been playing its rugby-themed airline safety video since last year, which we now have almost memorized: "to make your way to the exits, even if it's All Black..." haaa).

In Tonga, however, the entire city seemed to explode in a day-long impromptu festival of rugby support. Mid-morning, we looked out of the window to see the electricity company Tonga Power driving their red-festooned power line maintenance vehicles in a parade down the middle of downtown. The entire day proceeded in the same attitude, cars honking, throngs of people in the streets, crazy decorations at the main market. At one point, a torrential rain poured down for half an hour, soaking everyone thoroughly, but the partyers in the streets didn't miss a beat, joyfully strolling along in the downpour in their red.

The entire market was festooned in red balloons and drapes
Go Ikale Tahi at the Nuku'alofa government primary school
Not owning a TV, that evening we went to Leta and Pila's house to watch the exciting match. Leta is my manager at work, and we always thoroughly enjoy our conversations (not to mention the excellent food and coffee) with her and her husband when we have visited their house in the past.  In celebration of the night, I made a ginger slice, a sweet delight previously unknown to us before coming to this part of the world composed of a crumbly cookie bottom topped with a spicy ginger frosting. It was extra-cool because it even said Go Ikale Tahi.

We're getting ready to watch the game
Yes, this was an Ikale Tahi ginger slice, decorated with some of the precious dried cranberries my family brought on their recent visit
Tonga lost to the All Blacks, as everyone guessed they would, but we all had a great time. When Tonga made a try, the neighbourhood erupted in honking and yelling, as could well be expected.

Tonga's next game plunged the city into depression with its unforeseen loss; the quiet empty streets and glum looks from my coworkers could have told the outcome to anyone who had missed watching it. I had planned on writing about the World Cup at around that time last week, but after the loss, just didn't have the heart.

So, no one was expecting much when Tonga played its third game last night, and won! In one night, the sick were well again, the depressed wore grins of joy. The whole city celebrated.

We rode our bikes through town back from watching it again at Leta and Pila's, and yelled "GO IKALE TAHI!" back and forth with the happy crowds of people milling in the streets at 11pm. Two hours later, we could still hear beeping from happy drivers and laughing groups chattering about the win as they passed our house. If the Ikale Tahi make it into the semi-finals, I think the whole country might just shut down.

1 comment:

  1. Addendum: Tonga won against France last night!! Although it wasn't quite enough to push Tonga into the quarter-finals, it was an amazing finish and the Ikale Tahi will come back home to Tonga with much celebration. As the commentator said, this game made history.

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