OFC: As if they weren’t overwhelmed enough with the bright lights of the big city, 40 young footballers from Tonga – and a couple of coaches too – were left with stars in their eyes following a visit from Tonga-born All Black Malakai Fekitoa.
On Wednesday evening, after a full-on day of fun at Auckland Zoo, the Tonga U-13 and U-15 teams were just relaxing at their accommodation when they were called into the dining room.
“Malakai Fekitoa, the Tongan All Black, walked in to surprise them,” says trip organiser Pau Likiliki.
“They had only ever seen him on TV but to actually see him in person here they were shocked, but they were stoked. They just didn’t know what to say.
“They just walked up to him with a big smile and shook his hand. He’s a Tongan idol.”
Four of the kids still reeling from their encounter with a celebrity were Sione Tomasi Folaumoetu’i, Alipate Tukia, Jedidiah Burling and Tevita Sili, who say it was a once-in-a-lifetime meeting.
The quartet say in rugby-mad Tonga the All Blacks are pretty famous, and they can’t wait to tell their friends back home that they met Fekitoa in the flesh.
“It’s was really good to meet him. We were all just sitting around when he walked in. Everyone just went silent,” recalls Burling.
“He talked about how he grew up into rugby and how he got to that stage, what he does daily with his training and with his team.”
Do they think they can one day emulate their idol but in their preferred sport? Of course.
“It’s inspiring to meet someone who has come from the same background as us who is now on the top. It just makes us want to be like that.”
Likiliki set up the meet-and-greet via his first cousin, another former All Black Pita Alatini, after he wasn’t able to make it himself.
“I was a bit nervous he wouldn’t turn up but he did and it was great because he’s fluent in Tongan and spoke very well. The kids just sat quietly and listened,” Likiliki says.
“He shared with us about his upbringing, where he came from and how he struggled through to where he is now. He talked about the schools he attended in Tonga, which most of the kids here went to or are still going to.”
One of the most important messages that Fekitoa stressed to them was that he is just like them.
“He came here with very little English and with hard work and perseverance he has got to where he is now. They can be the same if they work hard. Nothing comes easy and he kept emphasising that.
“He credited his success t his Christian background, which is all common to all of us from Tonga, as well as music.”
Likiliki says the kids soon came out of their shells and started asking questions about how he prepares himself for games, what to eat, what not to eat.
“He told them never to forget where they came from, never forget that to make it you need to work hard because you’ll always have people putting you down and telling you won’t make it.
“He encouraged them to keep playing football. It was a really good session.”
The kids were also treated to an encounter with former national football team captain Uame Toluta’u, also a former TFA football development officer, who is now based in New Zealand.
Toluta’u helped distribute the team uniform to players on Tuesday evening, as well as sharing his knowledge and experience with them.