When he got the call inviting him to be part of the festival match curtain raiser at FMG Stadium Waikato this weekend, former Tongan rugby captain Nili Latu didn’t hesitate.
“It was a no-brainer for me, I immediately put my hand up,” says the veteran flanker, who has plied his professional rugby trade around the world – and at 37, is still going strong.
Latu is the only active professional rugby player lining up for the Pacific Island Legends team which will play the New Zealand Barbarians Legends in the curtain raiser ahead of the All Blacks vs Tonga Test.
He’ll play in a team coached by All Black great Tana Umaga and which also features All Blacks Sevens legend DJ Forbes, former Wallaby Radike Samo and former Chiefs prop Deacon Manu. They’ll match up against a team which includes 11 former All Blacks, is captained by the mercurial Carlos Spencer, and will be coached by Sir Michael Jones.
The curtain raiser will be played over two 30-minute halves, with rolling subs to make it a little easier for the veterans turning out for the match.
Nonetheless, Latu expects he’ll play the full 60 minutes: “If I do, that’ll help everybody out! Some of the boys are just happy to get the opportunity to play for a good cause, and just have one more run. Everybody’s looking forward to it.”
Latu says it’s important people understand the importance of the cause the curtain raiser supports. The MaiBody, MaiFuture initiative is run by the Pacific Rugby Players and aims to help Pacifica and Maori communities make the right health and well-being choices to fight health issues like type two diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke.
Latu’s had close relatives directly affected by some of the health issues Polynesian and Pacifica families face: his parents both have diabetes and his father requires dialysis for a kidney condition.
“We want to spread a message to our Polynesian people there is help out there,” he says.
“There are better choices for them when it comes to food, and what they put into their bodies. This is a good cause, and it touches every household in Polynesian communities.”
Describing himself as “still running around, and still enjoying the footy”, Latu is renowned for his tough tackling and ball running.
“It’s good to be back in Hamilton to play – it’s certainly been a while,” he says. “It’s not often you get a chance to run out onto that field. It’s a game I’m really looking forward to.”
Latu played for the Chiefs and the Hurricanes in Investec Super Rugby, and has recently signed on to re-join Japanese side Hino Red Dolphins– returning to Asia after a stint playing in England.
He played the All Blacks once during his career – during pool play in the 2015 Rugby World Cup – and expects his compatriots to lift their game against the current world champions.
“A lot of the Tongan boys are based in New Zealand, and I’m sure they’ll go out and give it their all. It takes a long time to get a crack against the best team in the world, and I am sure for the boys it will be a really special occasion.”
Tickets for the All Blacks vs Tonga match (including entry for the curtain raiser) can be purchased here.