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How the tiny island of Niue is aiming to become a force in world rugby league

Jack Douglas

Sport Examined takes a look at the Pacific Island’s hopeful rise to power.

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Niue have announced their squad for the upcoming “Emerging Nations” later this year ©Alchetron

The Takalo is defined as a ‘traditional Niue war dance by an individual warrior or group of warriors prior to engaging the enemy in warfare’.

Throughout history, defenders of the tiny island put their nation and people first, as they often defended their land to the death. The Takalo war cry, similar to the iconic Māori Haka, was a way of striking fear into Niue’s enemies before the subsequent battles unfolded.

The Takalo is still dauntingly performed to this day, as Niue’s rugby league outfit look to emulate the warrior nature of their ancestors.

With a population of just 1,624, the Island nation find themselves somehow sitting 31st in the latest RLIF rankings. South Africa meanwhile, boasting 55 million citizens, are currently four places below the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue.

When inhabitants of Niue, painted in blood, refused to give permission for Captain Cook to land in 1774, he named the Island ‘Savage Island’, as a warning to other sailors to stay well clear of the Polynesian Rock.

This ‘savage’ spirit is epitomised to this day through the athletes that represent the island, especially in Rugby League.

The islanders played their first international in 1986, losing 22-8 to an experienced Cook Islands side in Rarotonga. It took six years and eight tests for Niue to record their first win, beating high-flyers Fiji 14-0.

For a tiny nation, Niue’s recent form has been nothing less than spectacular. Brendan Perenara’s men have won five out of their last seven fixtures, twice beating South Africa by a 44 point deficit.

Backrow Josiah Tamasi encapsulates the Niuean fighting spirit, stating: “When I put on the Niue jersey I carry my family out there with me and playing alongside my brothers in the team means a lot to me.”

The idea of togetherness is one most nations would envy, and it seems the Niuean’s treat each match like a battle as Tamasi adds: “There’s nothing like going to war and doing all you can to come out on top.”

The words of the Wentworthville Magpies man echo across the entire squad.

“To sing our anthem, perform our Takalo [below] and represent all of my family has been a dream come true. We are a small nation but with huge hearts, and one day we will reach the world cup,” adds centre Aziah Ikitule who plays his club rugby for Auckland outfit Howick Hornets.

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Although remote, Niue has a reputation of an island with beautiful hideaways ©Lonely Planet

Fullback and captain Zebastian Lucky Luisi is perhaps the nation’s most accomplished players; having enjoyed seven years in England. After a successful trial with London Harlequins, Luisi signed for the club and managed to rack up fifty appearances for the Quins before moving to Doncaster and then on to Barrow Raiders.

With no domestic competition being played on the island, coach Perenara has to look west across the Pacific to monitor his players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand. Few of the squad have made it into the NRL, with most of the players representing teams in lower or provincial divisions.

Due west over the Coral Sea, the world’s top ranked side welcome visitors to Sydney’s magnificent ANZ stadium, spurred on by a capacity crowd of 84,000 raucous Aussie fantics. Niue meanwhile, whose whole population could fit in to the ANZ 51 times and still have space for away fans, don’t have the luxury of such a world class venue.

The Niue High School Oval, more commonly known as the Alofi stadium, holds a remarkable stat of being one of the only high school ‘stadiums’ to host interntional sporting events. With a capacity of under a thousand, the proud Niueans cram into the Oval to support their warriors.

Competitions like the Emerging Nations World Championship this October will give the side the chance to play competitive fixtures against sides of similar ability which will give Niue priceless experience and belief.

The Islanders have been handed a tough draw as they find themselves drawn against two higher ranked sides in Malta and the Philippines, yet if they were to make it out of Pool A then the trophy could certainly be reachable for Perenara’s men.

Spurred on by recent successes in test matches, Niueans believe qualifying for the world cup in England in 2021 is possible; and if their last result is anything to go by this hope could well turn into a reality.

The Niue team, most of whom are based in Australia or New Zealand, were admirably beaten 32-16 to world cup quarter finalists Lebanon last time out, perhaps a sign of a golden era of Niuean Rugby to come.

With the World Cup format expanding, two more places are up for grabs meaning sixteen sides will contest the Paul Barrière Trophy. Could the yellow and blue jerseys of Niue make an appearance in England soon? Let’s hope so.

Jack Douglas

Sources: Interviews via Niue Rugby League on Facebook.

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