Tonga and Fiji may have been knocked out of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup this weekend but they have both worked wonders for international Rugby League.
Prior to the tournament starting, many people thought it would be a three-horse race between Tier One nations Australia, New Zealand and England.
But boy oh boy, Tonga and Fiji provided some of the best entertainment that international Rugby League has ever seen.
Some said the international game was dying and that something needed to be done, and Tonga and Fiji have been game changers.
Let’s start with the Mate Ma’a, a handful of players switched allegiance from the likes of New Zealand and Australia to represent their country of birth or their heritage in Tonga.
How good is that? They didn’t do it for money or anything like that. In fact, it was the complete opposite. The Tongan players received a fee of around $500 while Australian players received $20,000. A staggering amount, and potentially, life-changing sums of money.
But they wanted to represent Tonga. And they didn’t let their nation down, finishing top of Group B, also known as the group of death, with three wins against Scotland, Samoa and Tier One side New Zealand.
The Mate Ma’a, whose haka is fantastic, put their name into the history books as they became the first ever Tier Two side to beat a Tier One outfit in the Kiwis.
Tonga then beat the highly-impressive Lebanon in the quarter-finals and ran England, another Tier One team, right to the wire after coming back into the game in the 72nd minute. They just fell short 20-18 in Auckland.
I’ve talked about Tonga’s qualities on the field but their level of support shouldn’t go unnoticed. They have been treated like rockstars everywhere they have played and the scenes at the Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on Saturday was absolutely beautiful.
Beautiful isn’t a word commonly used in a tough sport like Rugby League but it was, you could clearly see the pride in the faces of the Tongan support and their hymns throughout the game were again, beautiful.
While on the topic of hymns, let’s move on to Fiji. Everyone was blown away by the voices of the players during their pre-game hymn in the opening weekend of the tournament against Scotland, especially back-rower Viliame Kikau, what a voice!
Due to Tonga’s squad being full of NRL superstar names, Fiji went under the radar in the tournament because Tonga were in the limelight.
But the Bati were equally as impressive. Prior to the semi-final weekend getting underway, they had scored more points than any other team in the competition.
They played some very exciting and expansive rugby which was a delight to watch in the group stage, as they battered USA, Wales and Italy in Group D.
In the quarter-final, they became the second Tier Two nation in as many weeks to beat Tier One outfit New Zealand, making further history in international Rugby League.
Fiji will no doubt be disappointed with their performance against the Kangaroos in their 54-6 semi-final defeat. They are a lot better than how they played but it is something they can work on.
The Bati have reached the semi-finals in the last two World Cups so they should, in my eyes, now be classed as a Tier One nation, alongside Tonga.
The 2017 Rugby League World Cup wouldn’t have been half as good if it wasn’t for Tonga and Fiji.
They both proved that it wasn’t just a three-horse race, they proved that passion is worth more than money in sport, they proved that they are a force to be reckoned with, they proved that the international stage is the pinnacle for any player, they proved that there is a bright future ahead for international Rugby League.
I would love to see the likes of Tonga, Lebanon, Fiji and Papua New Guinea come over to the UK in future years for one-off Tests or maybe a series, it would certainly get the backing of British fans.