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The day the Tonga truck changed international league

You show Jason Taumalolo the powerful, emotional image of him leading the Tongan Sipi Tau against New Zealand at last year's World Cup and the reaction is instant.

"There was a lot of pride that night,'' Taumalolo says, smiling as he leans over to get a closer view at one of the lasting memories of the tournament.

"I was nervous when the boys first asked me. We were actually in the sheds and saying our last good lucks to each other and shaking hands when Siliva Havili pulled me aside and said, 'Jase, the boys have asked if you're keen to lead the Sipi Tau'.

King of Tonga: Jason Taumalolo leads the Sipi Tau against New Zealand at last year's World Cup.

King of Tonga: Jason Taumalolo leads the Sipi Tau against New Zealand at last year's World Cup.Credit:NRL Photos

"He put me on the spot. I said, 'If you want me to, I'll happily do it'.

"He said the boys would love you to do it.

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"I was full of adrenalin and pride. When they dropped to their knee around me and I was standing in the middle, that's when I felt it.

"I had every intention of looking at Blairy [Adam Blair].''

That's right, Adam Blair, the proud Kiwi who slammed Taumalolo at the time for "not being man enough" to inform his former New Zealand buddies he was jumping ship to join Tonga on eve of the World Cup.

His defection was soon followed by Andrew Fifita and several Kiwis, including Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma'u.

"I'm not a fan of putting people down on social media and making things personal,'' Taumalolo says as he takes time out from the Tongan training camp on a chilly Saturday morning in Hamilton.

"I know he'd take those comments back and not say it the way he did. I took it personally that game.

"I know Blairy is a passionate leader for New Zealand. But you draw a line with some of the things he said. It came with how passionate he was about the New Zealand jersey and I can understand why he was so fired up and made the comments he made.

"I think we were lucky enough to get the win that day.''

Grudge match: Taumalolo takes on the team he turned his back on, New Zealand, at the World Cup.

Grudge match: Taumalolo takes on the team he turned his back on, New Zealand, at the World Cup.Credit:AAP

Tonga went within a whisker of qualifying for the World Cup final against Australia, only to lose a semi-final thriller against England. The atmosphere that night at Mt Smart Stadium was electric – widely rated as among the best in recent years.

The crowd was so loud Taumalolo said the players had to repeat their on-field calls and often run over to each other to hear properly.

"Seeing the sea of red actually topped the atmosphere at the 2015 grand final,'' he says.

It will be the same deal when Tonga play an historic Test against Australia at Mt Smart Stadium next Saturday.

It will be a sellout. But we'll get to the Aussies soon.

First you have to back up and delve a little deeper into why Taumalolo decided to join Tonga.

Like what motivated the 25-year-old wrecking ball to go from representing New Zealand in the Anzac Test to six months later pulling on the Tongan red?

Taumalolo's decision will go down as a watershed moment in the international game.

Don't argue: Jason Taumalolo shoves England halfback Luke Gale out of the way.

Don't argue: Jason Taumalolo shoves England halfback Luke Gale out of the way. Credit:AAP

A Mad Monday chat with Johnathan Thurston played a role. So, too, a post-match chat with Fifita.

Taumalolo and Fifita had represented Tonga previously, but this would be a game-changer.

"We had just beaten Cronulla in a finals game when Drew [Fifita] whispered in my ear, 'I'm thinking of going back to play for Tonga, would you be keen to go back?','' Taumalolo says.

"At the time I wasn't giving it much thought because we were thinking about the following week of the finals.

"Drew is one of the best front-rowers in the game and, at the time, he would have been one of the first picked in the Kangaroos, so it was hard for me to believe he'd go back to play for Tonga. But when he said it, it woke me up a bit.

"I thought about a lot of players who had played for Tonga and New Zealand, but played for Tonga at the back end of their careers, players who went back to represent their country of heritage.

"I thought to myself, 'I'd love to represent Tonga while I'm playing the best footy I can'.

"Believe it or not, and it's probably not the best day to make decisions, but I was on Mad Monday when I had a good chat with Jono [Thurston]. We were on Magnetic Island.

"I said to him, 'I'm thinking about going back to play for Tonga', and he said, 'What's the main factor behind you wanting to do that?'

"I said, 'I'd love to represent my people while I'm still playing good footy and not the back end of my career, and what better time than this World Cup'.

"He turned to me and said, 'If I had my way and could represent his indigenous culture at a World Cup, he'd be all for it'.

"I think from that point it gave me a bit of comfort in making my decision.

"I then rang my parents [Vaai and Tomi] and asked them if they wanted me to play for New Zealand. But without hesitation they said they'd be happy with whatever decision I made.

''They're both Tongan born – they sacrificed a lot for me to get me where I am now – and they were filled with joy.

"They went quiet at the time – I wasn't sure if mum was going to give me a spray – but I could hear dad in the background and he said, 'If you do this, we'll be proud'. Not many people can say they've turned their back on New Zealand to play for a tier-two nation.''

There was plenty of outrage at the time, but nothing that was likely to worry the Cowboys giant.

"I've only got Instagram, but if I had Facebook I probably would have copped the whole treatment,'' Taumalolo says.

Coach Kristian Woolf had an inkling Taumalolo could be about to take the plunge. Naturally, he was never going to ask him more than once if he was entirely sure.

"It's an extremely brave decision and it's a sacrifice not too many people in too many walks of life would be willing to make,'' Woolf says.

"He's copped a lot of publicity over it – some positive and some negative – but it shows the type of person he is and also the type of leader he is. Jason was a big catalyst for those other guys saying they'll do it as well.''

For all the support, the home-ground advantage and general warm and fuzzy feelings about the tiny Pacific nation, can Tonga actually beat Australia?

"It's probably too soon when you're talking about beating Australia,'' Taumalolo admits. "We haven't had the time to play together as much as teams like Australia, New Zealand and England. We definitely have a special group and we're building towards something special.

"Next Saturday anything can happen. We showed that last year at the World Cup with the run we went on.

"Knowing if all 17 players who take the field give their best and do their job and represent their country with pride and a lot of heart, that's a pass for me.''

Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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