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30 May 2017

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Growing grassroots rugby in Tonga

Growing grassroots rugby in Tonga

Will Hafu owes his success to St Paul’s, and he’s not taking that for granted.

The 34 year old graduated in 2001, and since leaving the gates on Hukanui Road, he’s experienced just about all you can in 16 years.

Will came in as a Year 11 in 1999 from Kelston Boys in Auckland on a rugby scholarship.

He was a Williams House boarder, captained the first XV rugby team, and even appeared in a school production or two.

After school, Will joined the Chiefs academy, where he spent time developing further as a rugby player before he took off to play professionally in England.

From there, it was the United States, then Portugal, then back to England again.

If that wasn’t enough, Will then became a player-coach for Tonga’s national 7s team and ended up coaching the women’s national team as well.

All of which, he admits, would have never happened had it not been for his St Paul’s education.

“I can’t say enough about my experience there,” Will says.

“It built me as a person and the character I believe in and have today.”

Now, Will’s decided it’s time to give back.

He’s become a co-manager and coach of a specialist rugby academy in Tonga, run by CSM – an agency that has ties with Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.

Through the academy, Will is trying to offer Tongan kids the same opportunity bestowed to him – an opportunity that many Tongan kids couldn’t even dream of.

The goal is to send kids to New Zealand schools for better sporting and academic options, the fruits of which Will hopes will be passed down from generation to generation when they return home to Tonga.

“If I can pay it forward to some of the kids who are from the outer islands of Tonga, who would have never had it on their radar to even think of leaving Tonga, let alone going to a very prestigious school, I guess there’s reward knowing they will do well because they are in a good environment,” he says.

“I just want to be the same person who helped me get my scholarship all those years ago.”

Physical education isn’t in the school curriculum in Tonga, so Will says most kids don’t really get to experience rugby until they are older.

As a result, most lack fundamental skills groomed in Kiwi kids from an early age.

“It’s just giving them structure and learning the basics so that when they move over to New Zealand or the professional world, they can understand what’s going on,” he says.

“I’ve seen they’ve got talent, so if I can offer them that opportunity overseas, whether it’s rugby or education, that’s massive for them.”

Will believes many of the kids would excel in a Kiwi environment, they just need the opportunity.

So he goes into Tongan schools every day, and trains specifically with academy students twice a week, working with them and schools throughout New Zealand to try and get them on a plane.

Currently, the programme has 23 kids in Kiwi schools and Will is excited for the day one walks through the gates at St Paul’s.

“We are very lucky people to have the education we did,” Will says.

“I can’t wait to be the guy who helps get someone there.”

SAM HEWAT (SCHOOL 2006–10)