Rugby World Cup 2011

Mixed returns for Tonga, Fiji

2011-10-04 14:10
Overjoyed Tongans, while the Fijians were made to suffer (File)

Wellington - Tonga and Fiji were both eliminated in the pool rounds of the Rugby World Cup, but the teams returned to vastly differing receptions in their Pacific island homelands.

Tonga pulled off one of the biggest wins in their history when they beat France in their last pool match and lifted their world ranking from an all-time low of 15th when the tournament began, to an all-time high of 10th.

The team's homecoming on Monday almost closed down the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa as fans left schools and workplaces to clog the route between the airport and downtown. The trip, which usually takes 30 minutes, took more than three hours.

The Fijians returned to headlines proclaiming the darkest day in the nation's rugby history and to calls for heads to roll for over their World Cup failure.

Under a one-word headline "Shameful," the Fiji Times newspaper said Fiji's standing in world rugby had disintegrated after its 66-0 loss to Wales in their last pool game, their worst-ever Rugby World Cup defeat.

The widely read Fiji Village website said "tough decisions will be made" when the board of the Fiji Rugby Union meets in Suva on Thursday. The website said several of the coaching staff involved in Fiji's Cup campaign, including head coach Sam Domoni, may lose their jobs as "questions continue to be asked" about the team's poor performance.

Rugby is a central part of Fiji's national culture and the poor performance in New Zealand of the so-called "Flying Fijians" has plunged the island nation into gloom. New Zealand commentators on Fiji's volatile political scene have even said the team's failure may jeopardise the hold on power of military strongman Commodore Frank Bainimarama.

Bainimarama's government was seen to have had a strong influence over elections earlier this year which installed a new Fiji Rugby Union board, headed by Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, the chief of the nation's land forces.

Tikoitonga was among a handful of officials and relatives who greeted the Fiji team at Nadi airport. He said the FRU board would conduct a thorough review.

"Now that we've seen the result of preparations it's time for the board to sit down and have a look at all the preparation that was done, how sevens has played a part in preparing players for 15-a-side, the number of matches we've had and all the reports of the past CEOs and coaches and see where we go from here," Tikoitoga told the Fiji Broadcasting Corporation.

"Things that have been done by FRU, where we've gone wrong and how we can better the result for our future games. That is one of the major tasks for the board, to map out a change of strategy and how we can prepare our team for future World Cups.

"We owe it to the boys for playing for Fiji. Rugby is bigger than all of us and needs to be seen as a national issue and not something that belongs to an individual sport."

Despite strong censorship imposed by Bainimarama's military regime, which seized power in a 2006 coup, questions are being openly asked in the Fiji media about the board's stewardship of Fiji rugby.

The Fijian despair contrasts with the rapturous welcome accorded to the Tongan team that arrived in Nuku'alofa, led by brothers Isitolo Maka, the coach, and Finau Maka, the captain.

"Traffic jammed Tongatapu's main roads and the island came to a standstill as crowds turned out to greet the national rugby team, the Ikale Tahi," MatangiTonga reported.

"The bus carrying the players and management had to be escorted by police officers, some walking beside the bus all the way from the airport to keep the excited fans from overwhelming the returning players.

"In Tongatapu the population had, it seemed, self-proclaimed October 3 as a national holiday and although offices and schools were open they emptied when almost everyone went out to the streets."


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