A sea of Tongan red will meet Joe Tapine when he represents New Zealand this weekend, but the Canberra Raiders star could hardly be happier.
In what will be New Zealand’s first professional rugby league game since before the pandemic, the Kiwis will host Tonga on Saturday at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium in front of what is widely tipped as a huge contingent of away supporters.
Tapine, whose sparkling form makes him a shoo-in to start on the front row of New Zealand, said the whole experience of playing back in his home country would be an emotional one.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” he told reporters.
“To go to NZ, see my sister and my father, it’s going to be huge and I can’t wait to see them… it’s going to be emotional, and it’s going to be good to play for them.
“It’s going to be a sea of red, but I love it.
“The atmosphere is ridiculous, and even though they’re in red, you get signs like ‘We love Tonga but go Kiwis’, so they’re not bad supporters.”
Tapine’s monstrous campaign, in which he leads the NRL forwards in run meters and the entire league in post-contact meters, prompted Canberra coach Ricky Stuart to suggest he would play a leading role for his country.
It’s something Tapine admitted had crossed his mind.
“One of my goals is to become captain of my country and the club,” he said.
“I’ve let Stick (Stuart) know it’s one of my goals; I go for big goals.
“I’ve been working on (leadership) for the past few years, but it’s starting to show a little bit more now. I’m glad everyone sees what I’m working on.”