Fifty years on from Tongan rugby’s greatest day, Wallabies legend Mark Loane can wryly find one positive from being on the receiving end.
“I got dropped after that Test. It probably saved my medical career so I’m grateful for that,” Dr Loane said of the extra study time forced upon him.
Tonga’s stunning 16-11 upset of Peter Sullivan’s Wallabies on a Saturday afternoon at Ballymore in 1973 is on any list of the code’s greatest boilovers.
As with all momentous upsets, there are two very different scripts. The conquerors keep staging reunions and get woven into history’s tapestry. The vanquished wish their names were written in invisible ink and could somehow disappear from the match programme.
There’s been a celebration in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa this past week to mark the 50th anniversary with the dwindling number of heroes from 1973.
They still talk of the history-makers of ’73 with reverence throughout the islands. It’s as if this was the Tongan equivalent of landing on the moon.
Wallabies fullback Arthur McGill and winger Owen Stephens certainly got a bone-rattling early taste of Tongan crunch when crash-tackling fullback Valita Ma’ake hit them. Sadly, Ma’ake and inspirational skipper and No.8 Sione Mafi are two who have left us. Centre Tali Kavapalu, who made a mark with Wests rugby in Sydney, dashed over from 50m out for the final try to seal it when the Wallabies spilt the ball on attack.
Mafi, lock Fa’aleo Tupi and utility back Faitai Kefu enjoyed Brisbane so much they embraced offers to return to play club rugby for the Souths Magpies several years later.
Kefu did much to cultivate the Tongan connection that is so strong in Australian rugby today. Two sons, World Cup-winner Toutai and Steve, played for the Wallabies. Four in all, with Fa’aleo and Mafi also on deck, played together for Souths in a first grade game in 2003.
“It took some bravery for those players to come to Brisbane in the 1970s, basically, with no education, no money and no English,” Toutai Kefu said.
“My father lay bitumen on the roads. There were laboring and factory jobs and Souths helped out.”
Permanent residency was a sticking point but Souths had helpful contacts. Bill Hayden, the Federal Labor leader from 1977-1983, was a former Souths player.
As coach of Tonga, Toutai knows how deeply the announcement of a celebratory match between his Ikale Tahi and Australia A will resonate on July 14.
“Once the fans are in the ground, they won’t really care if they are Australia A players or Wallabies being hit with big tackles,” Kefu said with a smile.
“That win over the Wallabies in 1973 is the most iconic moment in our rugby history. People still talk about it in Tonga and they have again this week for the 50thanniversary.
“Most of the players know of 1973 and hear talk of it. I refer to the hard work of those pioneers and them really just playing for the jersey and their families. Many over the years have had connections like we do now with team manager Tony Alatini, whose father Malakai was the flyhalf that day.
“To have my own connection to that Test through my father is something I treasure. As a kid, I remember seeing my father’s red Tongan tour blazer. It probably weighed 2kg in wool.
“We’re really grateful to have this game against Australia A in our build-up for the World Cup and for the push along that Eddie Jones gave it.”
Rugby Australia and the Australian Government, through the PacificAus Sports programme, are playing an admirable role in the right recognition to go with the staging. Geoff Richardson and John Cole, both Wallabies that day in 1973, will be guests in Nuku’alofa on July 14 when Australia A visit.
It’s astonishing how paths in rugby keep crossing.
Loane was on holidays in Tonga in 2019 when Kefu literally bumped into him outside the Queenslander’s downtown Nuku’alofa hotel.
“It was unbelievable. ‘Loanie?’…I had to do a double-take,” Kefu recalled.
“Our 2019 Tongan World Cup team was having a gathering the next day with two ex-players from the ’73 side coming in to address them.”
Loane volunteered to join the address.
“I went to the team meeting and wished them well on behalf of the Australian team which welcomed Tonga to the world of rugby,” Loane said.
Kefu related a story told by the former Wallaby: “Loanie told the group he still remembered Sione Mafi running over the top of him and smiling…and it was a smile he’d wake up having nightmares about.”
Loane was just a callow 18-year-old when picked at No.8 for the two Tests of that series. He was promptly dropped for the tour of Wales and England later that year before developing his own frame and brand of power running.
“We were working on some bright new idea in scrummaging in that Tongan series. Everyone was obsessed about staying in the scrum and the No.8 pushing. We got the concept half-right (with a dominant push),” Loane said.
Inside the first two minutes of the Test, Tongan halfback Ha’unga Fonua broke from the scrumbase, found clear space on the shortside with Loane’s head buried in the scrum. He fed Mafi inside for an easy try. There was no backrow cover defence in sight.
“I never ever let anyone score again on the blindside of a scrum,” Loane said.
“I was dropped after that Test for the tour that followed. I later reconciled that maybe I was meant to miss that tackle because I had an anatomy subject to pass at university.”
Now one of Queensland’s top ophthalmic surgeons, Loane had a curious moment on his Test debut at the SCG a week earlier. He found a coin on the field and alerted skipper Sullivan. It was mid-game.
“It’s a true story. I found ‘two-bob’ on the 25 and said, ‘Hey ‘Sully’, look at this?’. He just looked at me, ‘Are you a mystic?’,” Loane said.
Loane would go on to become a Wallaby great through a 28-Test career. He captained the Wallabies to the famous Bledisloe Cup victory over the All Blacks at the same SCG in 1979.
“That Tonga Test wasn’t a failure. In a way, it put us on the road to success and the hard yakka needed to become a top Test side over the decade that followed the nadir of Australian rugby,” Loane said.
What those 1973 Tongans started still flows through Australian rugby today.
It’s why Test prop Taniela Tupou grew up in Tonga wanting to be a Wallaby, not an All Black.
Tupou knows all about 1973: “Yes, I’ve watched bits on YouTube. They were a good team, so big for Tonga and people have always talked about them.”
Seeing Tongan blood in gold jerseys meant something.
“One of the reasons why I liked the Wallabies was watching Toutai Kefu, George Smith, ‘Keps’ (Sekope Kepu) and Tatafu (Polota-Nau) when I was young,” Tupou said.
“I just wanted to be one of them in the future and have young Tongans look up to me. I wanted to play for the Wallabies.”