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A general view is seen during the match. 2017 Rugby League World Cup Semi Final, England v Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand. 25 November 2017 © Copyright Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung /

There was a telling moment - somewhat touching in fact - early on during the sensational Tonga-England Rugby World Cup semi-final at Mt Smart.

It occurred towards the southern end of the Upper East Stand and was witnessed by only three people in a crowd of 30,000.

A young Tongan girl - aged about 11 or 12 - was standing at full stretch joyously waving her large red and white flag. She suddenly realised the flag was flying across the faces of the two neutrally-dressed pakeha fellas sitting directly beside her. She suddenly sat down and with a sheepish, somewhat guilty, face pulled down the flag and tucked it under her seat.

The two ageing pakeha - myself and friend Graham - quickly assured her she was annoying no one and she should put her flag back up and cheer for her team, probably a couple of tries down by this time.

To me, this small incident personified an occasion the likes I have never experienced.

Here was a proud Pacific Island nation occupying a sports stadium - Fortress Tonga - in the centre of the largest city its people now call home. And in the midst of it all, a little girl - obviously brought up to respect adults and sub-consciously the white fellas in particular - was instinctively worried that she was intruding on other people’s space.

The fact is, the right to be there was fairly and squarely hers. The team she called her own had fairly and squarely eliminated the host nation, a country which over a period of 40 or more years had dissolved borders so its Pacific Island neighbours could find and share prosperity in a more prosperous land.

Mt Smart that Saturday afternoon was the epicentre of the social and cultural Polynesian melting pot that had evolved, over decades, from largely-constructive immigration policies by Governments of varying political persuasions.

Once again, sport had provided the stage for the Polynesian communities to openly display and flaunt their own patriotism and identity in a city which now embraced them. And in a rugby code which they now embraced and, indeed, excelled.

For weeks, it had been almost impossible to drive through Auckland’s streets without encountering a flag, usually Tongan or Samoan, flying from another vehicle. It is somewhat significant that hardly a Kiwi flag was to be seen.

As the completion evolved and one team - Tonga - defied all predictions, all this largely good-natured jingoism was to culminate in a pulsating sea of red at Mt Smart Stadium.

The drive to the ground was like no other, with seemingly every-second house along Mt Smart Road adorned in red and white balloons, banners and signs proclaiming “Die for Tonga” and the like! Just to cap it off, we passed a rubbish truck - like the one that empties your blue bins - covered in the biggest Tonga flag you could imagine!

Although I had been a foundation season ticket-holder to the Warriors, it was more than a decade since I had been to the stadium, having lived overseas for most of this century.

It was a nice homecoming. The facilities were spotless, the ground could have hosted a billiards game and it seemed that each one of that 30,000 people had a bird’s-eye view of the action, no matter where they were crammed.

Once inside, you got the impression that such an occasion belonged, and deserved to be, at Mt Smart. Eden Park just would not have been fitting. This was the ground that had remained loyal to the local NRL franchise - and vice versa - and many at the game were indeed regular attendees there, often wearing black rather than red!

But this day there was not a black shirt in sight. Just a wave of red and white, well mainly red.

For those not there, the television images, while still amazing, could hardly convey the true passion and enormity of the occasion.

I have been to some of the great stadia of the world - from Yankee Stadium to Wembley, from Stade de France to Loftus Versfeld. I have seen some of the great sporting occasions, World Cup Finals, various Grand Finals, even Olympic finals. But somehow nothing was quite like Mt Smart that day.

When the controversial final whistle was blown, the two pakeha fellas took a little while to soak in the astonishing scenes before leaving space for the 12-year-old to feel free to show her appreciation - in any way she liked - for what might have been for her team.

Yes she deserved a better outcome. But somehow it was still as good as it gets - for a proud Pacific people, for Mt Smart, for the game of rugby league, and ... for New Zealand!

Acknowledgement of Country

The New Zealand Warriors honour the mana of the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific. We acknowledge the traditional kaitiaki of the lands, elders past and present, their stories, their traditions, their mamae and their mana motuhake.

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