EXCLUSIVE: ‘We had to use a COCO as a rugby ball to play on the beach’ – Central Tonga Vaea Vaea’s extraordinary journey from a small island to Twickenham
- Vaea Vaea breathes rarefied air ahead of Tonga’s clash with England
- Live the life of an international rugby player who comes from poverty.
- Vaea is a center with rock star potential who plays rugby for clubs in France for Pau
- He made his debut against Scotland and wants to be the best in the world
Vaea Vaea, looking around wide-eyed at the luxurious surroundings of the Tonga team base near Twickenham, says, “This hotel is bigger than the island I grew up on.”
It is the 20-year-old Vaea’s first visit to the UK. He grew up on the small island of Lofanga, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. At less than a square mile, with a population of 120, it barely appears on most maps.
“We moved there when I was five for a couple of years to be with my mother’s family,” explains Vaea.
“You can only get there by boat and you can tour the island on horseback. We played rugby every day, but we didn’t have a ball, so we used a coconut on the beach. Then we went straight to the sea.
Vaea Vaea wants to be among the best centers in the world and faces England for Tonga
‘I remember going fishing with my grandfather. Hang octopuses on trees to dry. There weren’t many stores, so fishing was the main way to get food.
“Sometimes we would go out in a boat and you would see huge whales leaping out of the water. The first time I saw them I thought they were going to eat me! I would swim in the sea to find the fish and my grandfather would hit them with a small spear. I loved it.’
It may seem like an idyllic island paradise, but life was tough. Money was tight and there was not always enough food for everyone.
Vaea is a raw talent, the youngest member of the Tonga team, and considers himself a center with rock star potential. Cut from a fabric similar to Malakai Fekitoa, rugby is your chance to break free from the cycle of poverty.
Vaea came from difficult circumstances to initially thrive in the rugby league and now in the union.
“I used to smile but it was difficult to live because we had nothing,” he says. ‘Penniless. I have six brothers and one sister. We lived in my grandparents’ house with my aunt and her husband.
“There were 12 people in a small house, made of wood with coconut leaves as a roof. All the boys slept in the living room and the rain came in through the roof at night.
“We never had breakfast. Sometimes you just climbed a coconut tree, drank the milk and ate what was inside. It was then that I began to learn about the difficult life.
“I look back at what I overcame and it keeps me going, focusing on my goals and training hard to help my family in Tonga.”
The powerful center will be tested against the elite against Eddie Jones’ side
Like many Pacific Islanders, rugby is Vaea’s ticket. His older brother, Ita Vaea, was drafted by the Wallabies in 2013, but the following week he discovered blood clots in his heart and was eventually forced to retire.
“My brother had to stop playing and that made me work even harder,” he says. “I left home when I was 16 to get a scholarship in New Zealand. It was difficult because I couldn’t speak English. All I could say was “yes” and “no”. If people tried to talk to me, I would keep walking.
‘I stayed in my bedroom, I did not go to classes and I only went out to train rugby. The principal told me that if I didn’t go to class I wouldn’t play rugby, so I finally started going and met some Tongan people who invited me to stay for the weekends.
That’s when I started to enjoy it. After school, I had the option of going to Crusaders Academy or moving to Australia to sign a rugby league contract with the Brisbane Broncos. My uncle lives in Australia, so I lived with him and sent everything I earned to my parents. Two thousand Australian dollars a month. It was the first time I had been paid. A good feeling. It made me happy.’
After about a year, Vaea was given the opportunity to return to rugby union and signed an agreement with Pau in France. He has not looked back. Last weekend he made his international debut against Scotland at Murrayfield and on Saturday he could face the biggest game of his career so far at Twickenham.
Vaea played Scotland last weekend and wants to make his family proud
“When I called my parents to tell them that they had chosen me for Tonga, they started crying,” he says. “I haven’t seen them since 2018. It’s tough. My dad had to retire three years ago because he is sick. His body continues to shake. You cannot drive and you cannot eat alone. I’m not sure if it will come next year or not. It’s hard for me not to be there.
That is why I am here, for my family. When the borders open, the first thing I’ll do is go back to Tonga. Every time I train, every time I feel like I can’t do more, I think of my parents at home and that gives me energy.
‘My goal is to be the best center in the world. I’m still young but age doesn’t matter to me. I will try my best, do my best, and make my family proud. ”