x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It is a home from home for Pacific Islanders

The Tonga team was greeted in Auckland by thousands of fans, and they will face the host nation in the pool stage.

Tonga are unlikely to beat New Zealand on the rugby field but their arrival in Auckland yesterday trumped the All Blacks welcome as fans of the Pacific Islanders brought roads around the airport to a standstill.

Expatriates dressed in red, some with faces painted, flooded the airport at Auckland, which has the largest Polynesian population in the world, to welcome their rugby side who open the Rugby World Cup against the All Blacks at Eden Park on Friday.

Len Brown, the Auckland mayor, took to the stage and addressed the crowd, but the biggest cheer was for the team when they performed their pre-match challenge - the sipi tau.

The thousands of people that swarmed on the airport appeared to outnumber the big crowd the All Blacks drew for their welcome ceremony at Aotea Square on Saturday.

Tonga's media conference was delayed by more than an hour as the team struggled to get to their hotel in Auckland through the traffic the fans had created.

"Today arriving at the airport made me really proud to be a Tongan," Finau Maka, the captain, told reporters. "Just seeing the Tongan community. I actually thought we were landing in [the Tongan capital] Nuku'alofa. It was just awesome to see."

Tonga, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific with a population of just over 100,000, has a proud history of producing top-quality rugby players such as the former Wellington lock Inoke Afeaki, but have never qualified for the knockout stages at a World Cup.

They face a tough task escaping Pool A with matches against Japan, the Pacific Nations champions, Canada and twice runners-up France after the daunting World Cup opener.

"I don't think we can compete with the All Blacks the way Australia and South Africa did. We have our own strengths and we're going to play to them," Isitolo Maka, the Tonga coach, said.

Jerome Kaino, the All Blacks' loose forward who was born in American Samoa, said of the support for the Tongan team: "I think it's good for the island nations. I think some of the games will be like a home game for them."

However, it was not just Tonga fans singing and dancing in Auckland yesterday.

A crowd suddenly struck in the city's central business district performing the All Blacks pre-match haka as local excitement grows about the biggest sporting event the country has hosted.