Down Under Blog: Tongans as far as the eye can see

One of my most abiding memories of supporting Hull FC as a kid was my first ever foray into the Threepenny Stand…

It was in 1981 and it was the first night that our initial three Kiwi players, Dane O’Hara, James Leuluai and Gary Kemble, all played together in the Black and White. In my memory it was a magical night soured only by O’Hara copping a late knee in the back from a Cas player and having to be helped off after suffering a punctured lung. Not that I saw much of that, as a seven-year- old, and with a massive 16,000 plus crowd that had packed our famous old ground. I only saw glimpses of the match through the throng. Looking back, I realise now how lucky I was to watch three of the greatest overseas players Hull FC ever signed, in their absolute peak. Arthur Bunting shook the rugby league world when he went out and signed those three blokes, as back then overseas signings weren’t really a thing at all.

Ironically it was a 10-33 drubbing at the Boulevard by the touring New Zealand outfit that had first alerted Arthur to the talents of these Kiwis, and in fact Kemble didn’t even play in that game. When we signed O’Hara and Leuluai, they actually asked if there might be a chance we’d have a look at their mate Gary as well. Of course we did and the rest is history. Arthur later admitted that the one he coveted most of all was Fred Ah Kuoi. It took us a while to land Fred as he was contracted to the North Sydney Bears at the time, but when he came the four of them were a potent combination.

I’ve always been a believer that we shouldn’t sign the player, we should sign the man, a statement Gareth Ellis said to me at a meet the players thing at Kiama last year when Hull were down here. Over the years we’ve signed some great players that haven’t been easy to coach or plain idiots – hence the rise of the saying “no dickheads policy”. When Arthur went out and signed these four Kiwis though, we had four gems. Great blokes, and great players to boot. Even in those days the club saw the marketing potential of having the three of them (four later) photographed together and make club promotional appearances together. Our love affair with the New Zealanders meant that when we were bidding farewell to the Boulevard, it was fitting that the New Zealand touring side were the team we faced to bring down the saddest of curtains.

My dad attended the reunion dinner for the ’85 Wembley side a few years back, and watched those four immortals perform an impromptu after dinner haka, recreating that magical moment when we won the league in ’83 and the war dance was performed in front of Threepennies. Back in the early 80’s the club even brought out a range of merchandise celebrating our new players and for years, every morning when I woke up the first thing I saw was my “HULL FC – THE TEAM WITH THE KIWI POLISH” plaque on my windowsill.

Of course, these days you can’t appropriate a corporate logo like that without permission, and the owners of Kiwi polish would be straight on the phone with a cease and desist order, but as a branding statement, that was a powerful one. It gave us, as a team from a city experiencing the worst of the Thatcher years, with well above average unemployment and poverty, a cosmopolitan and even an exotic edge.

Where am I going with this weird rant I hear you say? Well, with the news that we’ve gone out and signed another Polynesian I did wonder if the club were going to recreate that “Tongan Mafia” themed range of stuff that fans went mad for a few years back. That’s when we had our first Manu, Willie, plus Sam Moa and Eplahame Lauaki all from Tonga. Next year, we’ll have Mahe Fonua and Manu Ma’u (Tonga), Carlos Tuimavave and possibly Ligi Sao (Samoa), Bureta Faraimo (American Samoan), Albert Kelly (Aboriginal Australian), Ratu Naulago, (Fijian), Masi Matongo, (Zimbabwean) and depending on what happens with transfers, possibly Chris Satae (also Tonga). So that’s a bit of a difficult marketing brief as opposed to three blokes all from the same place…. Maybe “Southern Hemisphere Heroes”? “Islander Idols”? “Antipodean Aces”?

Make no bones about it, the signing of Manu Ma’u is a huge statement of intent from the club. This bloke is an animal, and the great video the club put together to announce his impending arrival only shows half the story. If you have a sec whilst you’re sitting there reading this – have a look at the  Parramatta Eels social media pages or their Twitter and see what the clubs fans are saying about him leaving.

I’m as one-eyed a Hull fan as you’ll find and when we release or sell a player I don’t think we should’ve. I usually justify it by thinking, ah well such and such was injury prone, had a bad attitude, had poor discipline etc. Every Eels supporter I’ve seen is openly gutted to lose him, and that’s a great sign for us. I even had one of my work clients ring me today and congratulate me on signing the “scariest man in rugby league”, and that’s enough to tell me we’ve got a potential superstar.

I’m torn on the signing of Mahe Fonua I will admit. As I’ve said before, the man is an Hull legend, and three tries in two Wembley wins is of course the stuff of dreams. I just worry that we’ve signed him merely to prevent anyone else getting him instead. In his two years with the Wests Tigers, it did take him a while to break into the first team, but once he did, his appetite for work ensured his meter making was huge and he cemented his spot nicely.

Getting sent off in a pre-season friendly, and turning up late to training the week after scoring a match winning try derailed him a bit, and his last match before his season ending foot injury was terrible, as he flew out of the line to try to put a big hit on an opposing centre, fell off the tackle, and the Tigers conceded the match winning try as a result. On the flip side, he loves Hull, and we love him. He scores tries most players couldn’t imagine scoring, and when he gets his timing right there is no harder hitter in any backline in the league. It has to also be remembered that as a club we always did the right thing by him too. Allowing him to fly home to represent his country and releasing him from his contract a year early with his much publicised family issues and the Tigers coming knocking obviously wasn’t forgotten by Mahe, and when we enquired about him coming back the deal was concluded in record time.

Just thinking of the potential team we could put out on the field next year gives me chills – a backline of Shaul, Faraimo, Fonua, Tuimavave and Naulago and that’s leaving out Connor who I reckon will play most of the season at six with Kelly coming off the bench and assuming Griffin makes the leap into the pack, that still leaves out Adam Swift, Matty Dawson-Jones, Kieran Buchanan, Connor Wynne, Cam Scott, Charlie Graham and possibly Jack Logan too. That’s some strength in depth, and an attacking wet dream. Its also potentially a defensive nightmare, as Carlos aside, all of those players have produced some terrible defence in the past, lets hope we get them well drilled in defence, but still allow them the creative freedom to attack as they know how. This could potentially be the best Hull FC team in years, and 2020 could be the year it all comes together. THAT’S IT. 2020 VISION. What a marketing ploy that could be.

Until next time, Up the Cream, Gerremonsard and Come on you ‘Ull.


Twitter @pommyrich

This article first appeared in Up the Cream Issue 77. For our online shop, click here

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