Mann mountains of Tonga

Alex Hayes meets the first family of the 'friendly island'
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Duane Mann, Tonga's longest-serving player, has performed what, in sporting circles, is known as "a Milla". The concept, which was named after the former Cameroon international footballer Roger Milla in the wake of his appearance at the 1990 World Cup finals, could not be any more simple.

Duane Mann, Tonga's longest-serving player, has performed what, in sporting circles, is known as "a Milla". The concept, which was named after the former Cameroon international footballer Roger Milla in the wake of his appearance at the 1990 World Cup finals, could not be any more simple.

Basically, when asked his age, a sportsman says whatever takes his fancy. Milla, for example, claimed he was 34 during Italia 90, though most suspected he was closer to 42.

Mann is officially 35, unofficially considerably older. Ask him and his eyes will fix you, his voice will lower and his beaming smile will appear. "I'm 35," he says. Truth be told, it is the entire Tonga squad who are benefiting from the "Milla" trick. As their team manager, Nick Halafihi explains: "It's a Tongan tradition that the first birthday is celebrated in style, but men stop keeping count thereafter."

This month, though, Tonga have other concerns. Having managed to qualify for only their second World Cup, the youngest of league-playing nations are focusing exclusively on the mountainous challenges which lie ahead. The Tongans have been drawn alongside France, Papua New Guinea and South Africa in Group Three and, although the teams are reasonably evenly matched, Mann's men will have to be at their very best to make progress.

The Tongans' quality in the oval-ball game's other code, union, is well known, and it has long been the more popular of the two on the island, which was discovered for the west by Captain Cook in 1773. Tonga did not really play the 13-man game until 1986, and were granted full international Test status in 1995. It was in that year, during the last World Cup, that Tonga provided one of the game's most startling results, drawing 28-28 with mighty New Zealand, having led 20-0 at half-time. "An unbelievable day," Mann said.

Even today, few of the players are born on the "friendlyisland". "Like most of the guys, I come from New Zealand," Mann said. "Although we all have parental links of some kind with Tonga, it's rare for the players to be based there."

In the same way as the Samoan rugby union team have sought to raise their profile by employing former New Zealand internationals, so the Tongan league authorities have turned to Kiwis for inspiration.

"It was the only way we could improve," Halafihi said. "We needed the big names to grab people's attention. My grandfather, Nanumi, was the first Tongan to play at Wembley, for Hull FC in 1960. In a sense, he was the forefather of rugby league in Tonga, but it took a further 40 years for the sport to really get off the ground. It wasn't until guys like Duane put their spiritual shirt on that league had truly arrived."

Duane is part of a long line of league players in the Mann family. His father was a member of the powerful New Zealand team of the late Sixties and early Seventies, while his younger brother, Essau, officially 29, is a fellow member of the current World Cup squad. In fact, Mann junior displaced Mann senior as hooker, forcing his older brother to move to loose forward. Uncle Mann completes the family trio - George is in the touring party as the official cultural attaché.

"He teaches the younger players the Sepetau war dance," Duane said. "It's important for someone well known and respected to pass on his experience. For me, it's nice having so many of my family with me. It means the Mann dynasty can continue. Most of all, though, it gives me a feeling of belonging."

Not that Duane, who spent three-and-a-half successful years with Warrington in the early Nineties, needs much acclimatising to the demands of the British autumn. "I know the place well," he said. "I had a great time. The club spotted me during a New Zealand tour in 1989 and, when they asked me, I jumped at the chance of playing over here. I learned a lot during my time in England. Standards are not yet up to those of Australia, but they are on a par with New Zealand. The fitness aspect of the game is universal among the top teams now, so the result usually just comes down to littledetails on the day."

Tonga are still some way short of being serious contenders, but they have assembled a good set of experienced players and will be quietly confident they can progress from their group. The squad fly to France tomorrow, in preparation for their match against South Africa on Saturday.

It is a must-win game for Tonga. "We have a number of players who are professionals and know what's expected of them," Mann said. "We're not going to win the competition, but we feel we have a chance of doing something half-decent in our group. First and foremost, we are here for the experience. But if we can spring the odd surprise along the way, all the better."

On Thursday, the Tonga squad went paintballing in Flaxby, outside Leeds, against their Scotland counterparts. This was a chance to go out, have fun and build that allimportant team spirit. "Everybody looks out for each other and wants to do well for the good of the group," Mann said. "There are no factions in this group; we're like a big family." By all accounts, Tonga are proving to be the brotherhood of Mann.

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