After inspiring a revolution that has led to the emergence of Tonga as an international force, Sika Manu has told team-mates and coach Kristian Woolf that last Saturday’s historic Test against Australia was his last in a red jersey.
The Mate Ma’a Tonga captain, who played 14 Tests for New Zealand before committing to the island nation in 2013, had decided to retire from international football before the Auckland Test but waited until after it to advise Woolf and the players.
Manu, who overcame a knee injury that ended his Super League season with Hull FC to play in the first Test between the countries, told Woolf that he believed Tonga was now in a strong position after having qualified for last year’s World Cup semi-final and then proving competitive against the Kangaroos.
“I think he would have kept playing if his body could keep up with it all but I know just from the conversation I had with him that he feels like everything is in a good place, that everything is in good hands and there is some good leadership coming through in the group,” Woolf said.
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“Guys like Jason [Taumalolo], Will Hopoate and Siosiua Taukeiaho are real emerging leaders and he thinks that they can continue to take everything forward so it is the right time to step aside and let someone else do it.”
While Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita have been credited for Tonga’s dramatic rise in the past 12 months by turning their back on New Zealand and Australia to play for the island kingdom at last year’s World Cup, Woolf hailed Manu as a pioneer after taking the same stance four years earlier.
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The 31-year-old former Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers second-rower has since played 11 Tests for Tonga, including the 2013 and 2017 World Cups.
“He is a terrific leader, he has been the captain of the Tonga team since 2014 and he was one of the first ones, who was still on the cards of playing for New Zealand, who decided he wanted to play for Tonga while he was still at his best,” Woolf said.
“He was there during some really lean times, I guess, when things were a lot tougher resource wise and player quality wise than what they are now. Sika was probably the first bloke to really lead Tonga rugby league out of that.”
Manu impressed fans by addressing the capacity 26,211crowd at Mt Smart Stadium in both Tongan and English after fulltime, while he has demonstrated his passion for the island kingdom by flying from England to play in the mid-season Pacific Test each year.
“He has always been extremely committed,” Woolf said “It’s even little things that go unnoticed, like how after Cyclone Gita earlier this year, he was one of the first guys to jump on a plane and go over to Tonga and offer his services for free, talking water and stuff like that around to some of the villages.
“He is a very good person and a very good leader, as well as a good footy player, and he deserves a lot of accolades.”