Tonga set to sell more tickets than Kiwis

David Skipwith, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thursday, 11 October 2018, 8:14PM
The Kiwis are struggling to win back fans after a poor showing at last year's Rugby League World Cup. (Photo / NZ Herald)
The Kiwis are struggling to win back fans after a poor showing at last year's Rugby League World Cup. (Photo / NZ Herald)

The Kiwis know they need to win back the support of the nation as they face the reality of being outshone on their home patch by Mate Ma'a Tonga.

Ticket sales for Saturday's triple-header transtasman test against Australia at Mt Smart Stadium are sluggish, while World Cup darlings Tonga are set to play in front of a sell-out crowd in next week's clash against the Kangaroos.

The Kiwis are struggling to get local fans behind them after a nightmare past 18 months of poor results and off-field dramas.

Mt Smart has a capacity of 25,600 but New Zealand Rugby League boss Greg Peters admits they will be happy if 15,000 turn up to watch them take on the world champions.

"We're hoping to get a crowd of around 15,000 at the end of the day but if we get three wins on the weekend people will say 'I wish I was there watching that'," Peters told Radio Sport.

It's a different story for the hugely popular Tongan team, who arrived in Auckland to a hero's welcome with almost 5000 diehard fans turning out at a meet-and-greet in Manukau midweek, while there are few tickets left available for their October 20 test against Australia.

The Kiwis will eventually host Tonga in New Zealand next June, in a fixture that replaces the controversial midseason fixture against England in Denver.

Peters concedes the Kiwis and NZRL have a lot of work to do to earn the trust of fans after last year's premature World Cup exit and a run of negative publicity.

"There's no doubt about that," said Peters. "We took a big hit last year and that's why I'm calling it a new era and a rebuild of the faith in the black and white shirt at the senior level particularly."

The rot first set in after former Kiwis captain Jesse Bromwich and forward Kevin Proctor were caught using cocaine following a disappointing Anzac test loss in Canberra last May.

Former coach David Kidwell banned the pair from playing in the World Cup, and was then caught by surprise when former Kiwis Jason Taumalolo, David Fusitu'a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, and Manu Ma'u made the shock switch of allegiance to play for Tonga.

The Kiwis' embarrassment deepened when they were then beaten by Tonga in Hamilton, before their quarter-final defeat to Fiji in Wellington.

Frustrated supporters were further annoyed by off-hand comments made post-match by captain Adam Blair, before star halfback Shaun Johnson claimed fans and local media had wanted the team to fail. Johnson later apologised for his remarks but almost 12 months it seems Kiwis fans are yet to forgive and forget.

The NZRL's baffling decision not to pursue a home test against Tonga this season also left fans scratching their heads. The fact Australia recognised the immense interest in Tonga on this side of the Tasman and rushed in to capitalise makes it even more galling.

The players are well aware the Kiwis reputation has taken a dive, but Blair hopes they can begin to restore the public's faith by getting some positive results against Australia and on the end of year tour of England.

The 32-year-old 45-test veteran likens the situation to that of the Warriors, who this season set about winning back the respect of their long-suffering fans following six years of mediocrity.

"It's similar to where I've been in club land with the Warriors," said Blair.

"This year we had to do the same thing about trying to win back the fans and their support. Saturday night's going to be a step in the right direction if we can come away with a solid win.

"But the more games we can get at home with all three teams, and we can put in good performances, we're only going to put ourselves in a better position with fans and support coming back."