Tonga's road to redemption
FROM sinner to saint, the redemption of Charles Tonga has been a long and winding road.
After a wayward youth and a stint in jail on an assault charge, Tonga rose to become an NRL player and now coach of the Tongan national side.
His star-studded Tonga outfit will take on Samoa today in Penrith in a Test match and the 35-year-old will then step up preparations for this year's World Cup.
Tonga's story is one that reveals what sport can do for an individual.
But Tonga, who lives in Springfield, is the first to say that he didn't do it on his own.
It was in Woodford Prison as a young man in 2000 that Tonga met former Australian rugby league hooker and pastor Noel Gallagher. The meeting changed Tonga's life.
"I have been through a lot in my life. It has been a tough journey," Tonga says.
"But I have come through the other side. I was in jail when big Noel came to see me. I wasn't into God and I was way off track at that time.
"But Noel came to visit every day and spoke to me about life and helped me in my journey. He helped me to reflect on life so I could know myself and find out who I am really am … to find my identity.
"Back then I was pretty much a lost soul. I was all over the shop and had a big chip on my shoulder but that is all in the past now."
Tonga, now a gentle giant, says youthful pride was the problem in his early 20s and when he came out of jail he thought his career as a footballer was finished.
A stint in park footy with Browns Plains followed before his meteoric rise from Easts Tigers to the NRL with the Bulldogs in 2005.
Two seasons with the Roosters followed, but re-discovering his roots and helping others became a large part of his life.
He became involved in the Christian ministry with the Break Free church community and set up an employment business that helped young labourers find work. Appropriately, it was called Tough Yards.
But it was his commitment to helping young Tongan footballers that became a mission.
Out of his own pocket, Tonga visited his homeland and worked with the Board of Education in schools.
His clinics helped rebuild rugby league in Tonga from the ground up.
"I brought over balls, markers and basic stuff to do the clinics and you could see the hunger of the young kids," he says.
"They are so appreciative. To tell you the truth, they often play with a coconut or a shell and pass that around."
Tonga won an Ipswich Rugby League title with Swifts in 2011, a year after being named Tonga coach.
"When I was appointed as national coach of Tonga, part of the job was helping bring the young kids through and helping get the infrastructure right for the grass roots," he says.
"Then I had to eventually let playing football go so I can focus on the national side and prepare for the World Cup.
"Our side is very well balanced and there are a lot of talented players out there who are very unlucky not to get picked to play Samoa as well."
Tonga has dreamed for years of having a Tongan side chock full of players with NRL experience. Now he has his wish.
The Tongan side will be captained by Manly legend Brent Kite who has won two premierships in a 267-game NRL career, and has represented NSW and Australia.
"Brent last represented Tonga in 2000, so for guys like that to come back and lead this young side around is pretty amazing," Tonga says.
"We've also got guys like Sika Manu and Anthony Tupou who have returned. They have played internationals for New Zealand and Australia but they want to give something back.
"The whole theme behind this is giving back something to our people to encourage and motivate them.
"There is a real problem with our young kids getting into trouble, so part of my vision was to bring these guys in as role models. Going to a World Cup can really inspire a nation.
"We have come a long way since I was just working with the grass roots. Some of the kids I helped have gone to Japan for rugby union and some are playing seven-a-side for Tonga.
"The big thing for me is to see these young kids go and do something with the talent that they have.
"I want them to not forget where they come from. So when they finish, I'd like to see them come back and help find the next Israel Folau coming through or the next Fuifui Moimoi."
Tonga has noticed an explosion of interest in the national team after the side was named last week.
"When they named our team the other day, our Facebook likes were going crazy," he says.
"Now we've got nearly 2000 followers when there were only 400 a few months ago. People are getting really interested in this Test match and the World Cup.
"It is not just us. Teams like Fiji, Samoa and PNG have some great players in their teams. Everyone is a chance.
"For Australia and New Zealand to allow these guys to come back and play for us is a massive boost to our game and for our people."
Tonga has been drawn to play with Scotland and Italy in the World Cup in England later this year, and will also play an inter-group match against Cook Islands.
For Tonga, it will be a fitting reward to coach the side after putting his homeland first for so long. He could have played Super League in 2008 and furthered his career, but his change of tack has brought rewards for him and his people.
"I had an offer to play with Hull in England, but I came back to Brisbane to be close to my daughter Tenesha. It was very hard being away from her in Sydney for those three years in the NRL," Tonga says.
"In 2007 I went back to Tonga for the first time since I was a boy. I loved it that much that when I came back to Australia I was only home for two weeks and I was on a plane and back to Tonga again.
"It was just overwhelming to go back to my home village of Afa after all those years. I had to go back a second time because my heart is really with my people.
"Living here we take a lot of things for granted, but when I am in Tonga I really appreciate things."