Tonga, along with the other Pacific Island nations of Fiji and PNG, has been wonderful to watch in this year's Rugby League World Cup; they have lit up the tournament with dazzling skill, brute force, and a tremendously passionate war dance, whilst the Tongan fans have generated a quite unbelievable atmosphere wherever their team has played. At Tonga's semi-final clash with England in Auckland last weekend, over 30,000 spectators crammed into the Mount Smart Stadium of which the overwhelming majority were Tongan. To put this figure into perspective, Tonga's population numbers just over 107,000 - nearly a third of Tonga had made the journey to New Zealand, with King Tupou VI one of them.

Throughout the tournament, the Tongan fans have revelled in their team's success. Tonga's victory over the Kiwis, for example, stunned the world and changed the dynamics of international Rugby League forever. But, following their heart-breaking defeat to England at the weekend, Tongan fans have launched a barrage of protests against referee Matt Cecchin - for his decision to deny Andrew Fifita in the dying moments - and against the tournament organisers themselves, going so far as to claim that England "stole" an 18-20 victory.

Cecchin refused to go to the video referee, claiming Fifita had lost the ball in an attempted Elliott Whitehead tackle, a decision that the population of Tonga cannot come to terms with.

Yet, this attitude is downright embarrassing; Tongan fans are currently undoing all their team's hard work and the respect that they have earned throughout the competition.

Abuse of Cecchin

Referee Matt Cecchin, who made a courageous decision to end the game without referring Fifita's try attempt "upstairs", has since been attacked online by a hoard of angry Tongan fans as well as ordinary Rugby League fans.

The extent of the abuse that Cecchin has received is biblical; he has even had to change his Facebook name to "Victor Umbergo" - his two middle names - as a way of protecting, not just himself, but his partner, son and parents.

Much of the abuse aimed at Cecchin - a referee with over 200 NRL games under his belt - is homophobic; Cecchin came out as a homosexual in 2012.

Homosexuality is, in fact, illegal in Tonga, with a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment, whilst Tongan society is also extremely conservative and highly religious. This, in turn, has meant that many from the gay and lesbian community emigrate to Australia and New Zealand in search of a more open life. These beliefs - engrained within Tongan culture - have been cast upon Cecchin to a sickening extent. To make matters worse, Cecchin has even been described by some as a racist and a white supremacist. Referees are there to do a job and, despite most Rugby League fans often feeling exasperated at some refereeing decisions, the abuse that Tongan fans have subjected Cecchin to has rarely been seen before and, for the sake of the sport's reputation, it needs to stop.


There is taking a defeat badly and there is taking one as badly as Tongan fans have done; a petition, launched by Vai'ana Ta'ai, was started in the wake of the semi-final defeat and has accumulated a remarkable 60,000 signatures so far. The petition has the title: "Tonga v England - Look into the final try" and is aimed at the World Cup CEO, Andrew Hill, in order "to have an understanding and an explanation from NRL officials on why this final try was not counted."

The hypocrisy is unreal; just a week before, Lebanon - against Tonga - had a try ruled out by video referee Ben Thaler because of an illusory obstruction.

It was a decision which halted the Cedars' momentum, impacting the outcome of the game - which Lebanon lost 24-22. No Lebanon fan started a petition asking for an investigation into this decision - a decision which was significantly more contentious than Fifita's loose carry. The fact that the author Ta'ai has also included in his statement, "England knew they had not won", smacks of pure bitterness; over the course of eighty minutes, England were by far the better side.

Thus having fought back from 0-20 down to just 18-20 with a minute remaining and then to have a "try" ruled out, Tongan fans were quite understandably annoyed that they had been denied a fairytale comeback. Yet Ta'ai claims England "stole" the win.

This statement is laughable; often, Rugby League fans criticise referees for relying on video technology too much yet Cecchin took it upon himself to make a brave and correct split-second decision. In fact, to contradict the petition's author completely, if Fifita had been awarded a try in the bizarre seven minutes when Tonga actually started playing, it would have been Tonga doing the stealing.


Tongan fans have not stopped at a petition though; protests, yes actual protests, have taken place in Auckland by a mass of Tongan fans. One demonstration was held on Sunday evening and yet another Monday afternoon. A red-and-white-clad group of around 1000 gathered at Auckland's Aotea Square for the second day of peaceful protesting with chants such as "Give us our win" and banners with the words "We were robbed" at the centre of the demonstration.

If that isn't bad enough, fans have actually been "surfing" on the rooftops of cars with flags wrapped around them, whilst a cacophony of songs, cheers and horns blasted well through Sunday night in an attempt to force an explanation from tournament organisers as to why Cecchin did not to go to the screen and to search for what the Tongan fans deem the "truth". As a result, both days of protest have brought the traffic in the city centre to a halt which, in turn, has meant police officers have had to be called in to monitor the situation. Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous?

What Tonga should be remembered for

These classless demonstrations are obscuring the view of the real Tonga.

Tonga should be remembered for the way the population has embraced the tournament and for how their players have given blood, sweat and tears for the nation. The Tongan war dance - the Sipi Tau - is an incredible event to witness and Tonga's "dance-off" with Samoa and their Siva Tau will rank as one of the best moments ever seen on the rugby field.

Tonga have been emphatic this World Cup; they delivered one of the finest upsets in Rugby League history and bowed out at the weekend against England in a respectful, if gut-wrenching, fashion. The post-match Sipi Tau, as Tonga celebrated their exit with one more display of passion and pride, was enough to send shivers down the spine; this is the real Tonga and these are the memories of this vibrant island nation which Rugby League fans should take away from the World Cup. Please Tongan fans, do not ruin this memory.