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‘Hopefully have a ripple effect’: Penitani on decision to play for Tonga

Conversations with some of the key figures involved in Mate Ma’a Tonga’s stunning rise on the men’s Test scene helped convince Tiana Penitani it was the right time to switch international allegiance.

At just 27 years of age and coming off a season in which she represented New South Wales, Penitani is a huge coup for the Tongan side ahead of this month's Test against the Kiwi Ferns in Auckland. 

She'll be joined in representing the island nation by Sharks NRLW teammate and fellow former Jillaroo Vanessa Foliaki, along with rising Eels star Cassey Tohi-Hiku, who represented the Australia PM’s XIII last month. 

While it will be a longer process than was the case for the men, when Fifita and Jason Taumalolo led a wave of players in shifting allegiance to Tonga for the 2017 World Cup, Penitani sees a path to replicate their success.

Tiana Penitani highlights against the Cowboys

“My biggest motivation was seeing what the Tongan boys did back in 2017 and what they were able to achieve,” Penitani told

“I want to try and have the same influence that those big-name players for the men did for Mate Ma’a Tonga.

It will hopefully have that kind of ripple effect… We’d love to create a bit of a movement and get all of the Tongan girls back playing for their heritage.

Tiana Penitani

“I want to be able to inspire that young generation and show them that it is OK to come across.

“Andrew Fifita is at the Sharks where I play, so I have had a few conversations with him. Addin Fonua-Blake as well, who is a distant cousin and really good mates with my husband. 

“They always rave about it and say it’s the best experience they have had in the game.”

Veteran New South Wales forward Simaima Taufa and Broncos powerhouse Mele Hufanga, who will play for Australia and New Zealand respectively at the Pacific Championships, are among the current NRLW players who are eligible to represent Tonga. 

While she admits her move to represent Tonga has come earlier than she had initially anticipated, Penitani said it has been a plan to honour that part of her heritage, and her late father Solomon who hailed from the Kingdom, since she moved back to rugby league from union in 2019.

Also making the decision easier was the introduction of the Pacific Championships concept, which ensures the Tonga women will play Test matches in each of the next two years.

“It’s half of my heritage, so it has always been something that has lingered in the back of my mind,” Penitani said.

“My sister (Natasha Penitani) actually played for Tonga in the Test match against New Zealand last year and came home and said it was one honestly one of the best experiences of her life.

Penitani in action for the Jillaroos against the Kiwi Ferns in 2019.
Penitani in action for the Jillaroos against the Kiwi Ferns in 2019. ©NRL Photos

“That kind of lit a fire in me to potentially swap over and have the same experience, even if it is maybe a little bit sooner than what I expected.

“But now is the perfect time. It really helps to have a bit of direction in what we do instead of just waiting to see each year if we have a game. It’s nice to see a bit in the distance and that there are some games there."

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