Isaiya Katoa was just 13 years old when Jason Taumalolo led a Pacific revolution at the 2017 World Cup that ignited international rugby league.
Now the rookie playmaker is training and playing alongside Taumalolo in the Mate Ma’a Tonga side aiming to fulfil a 2019 pledge to become the first nation outside the big three to lift the Paul Barrière Trophy.
“In 2017, I was a fan,” Katoa said. “I was the type of kid that would stand at the TV and do the Sipi Tau with the boys, and sing the national anthem, so I am very proud of my heritage.
“I can’t believe that I am in camp now with these guys who I have looked up to since I was a kid. I am honestly star struck to be around them.”
After Tonga beat Australia in 2019, coach Kristian Woolf told his players in the dressing room that they had the potential to win the World Cup and would be bolstered by some young players rising through the NRL ranks.
David Fifita, Talatau Amone, Will Penisini, Toluta’u Koula, Moses Suli, Keaon Koloamatangi and Haumole Olakau'atu were all teenagers when Tonga made the 2017 semi-finals but are now preparing to take on Toa Samoa at Warrington.
"I know a lot of them would have aspired to play State of Origin or for New Zealand but I think they would have watched that 2017 World Cup and would have loved to be a part of what we done that year," Taumalolo said.
"Here they are now four or five years later representing their families. I didn’t think that it would have this much effect, and neither did the boys back then.
"It is safe to say that Tonga will have a brighter future after I leave. I look back and the team we have now is just as good, if not better than 2019, especially with the young guns coming through who are playing great for their clubs.
I truly believe we have a team that can not only trouble the big guys but can win a World Cup too.
"I truly believe we have a team that can not only trouble the big guys but can win a World Cup too."
After upsetting New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup, Tonga beat Great Britain and Australia in 2019 to climb into No.2 spot on the IRL World Rankings, behind the Kiwis.
Woolf believes they could be No.1 after the World Cup final at Old Trafford on November 19.
Match Highlights: Tonga v Cook Islands
“I’ve got full confidence in what this squad can do, we are exceptionally talented, and we have got the best depth and the best talent that we have had. Now we have got to go and do something with it,” Woolf said.
“Three years ago, there were some good kids coming through who are now playing for us, and in another three years there is a whole heap more kids coming through that are going to add to it as well.
“It is a great position to be in and if we get it right, and we get international rugby league right, we are going to continue to get stronger - and we are not the only ones.”
The Samoa team has also been bolstered by the likes of Jarome Luai, Brian To’o and Junior Paulo, who were inspired by the impact of Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita's decision to choose Tonga over the Kiwis or Kangaroos in 2017.
“It makes me feel good when I hear that,” Taumalolo said. “They are doing the same thing to try and inspire young Samoans and the next generation coming through to represent their heritage.
“It is great to see and it is only going to grow the game more. I think it will be make the international level a lot stronger because you won’t just see Australia, New Zealand and England winning all the time.
“You will start to see Pacific nations who have guys who want to represent their heritage come through and make it stronger.”
Young talent time
Addin Fonua-Blake played for New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup and Felise Kaufusi was in the victorious Australian squad, but both are now representing their heritage after being inspired by Tonga's performance and the support of their fans.
"I think what everyone wanted to do when they came together at the 2017 World Cup was to try and put Tonga on the map in international rugby league," Fonua-Blake said.
"It’s come a long way and now we have those young guns coming up. We want to inspire the next generation to come to play for their own country rather the bigger pay packet."
Kaufusi, who was the first player to sign with the Dolphins, has taken Katoa under his wing after the 18-year-old was lured from the Panthers to join the new NRL franchise.
Having achieved the rare distinction of playing a Test against Papua New Guinea in the opening round of World Cup matches before making his NRL debut, Katoa has also been completing his HSC while in England.
Young star shines in St Helens
"He has already shown the class he has got and he is supported by a good family," Kaufusi said. "I met his mum and dad before we came over and they are excited for the move. I think the sky is the limit for him."
Katoa, whose brother Sione played hooker for Tonga at the 2017 World Cup, has been logging on as early as 6.30am for exams and then training with the team.
“Coming into this camp I just wanted to be a sponge and learn as much as I can to prepare myself for the 2023 season," he said. “It is unreal that I have been given a shot at international footy before NRL. That is something that I dreamed of."
Taumalolo watched Tonga's first two World Cup matches against the Kumuls and Wales alongside Woolf in the coach's box as he was suspended, and the star lock admits he was a frustrated specatator.
With Taumalolo back in the side, Tonga thrashed Cook Islands 92-10 in Doncaster last weekend to warm-up for a Pacific showdown with Samoa that many compare to State of Origin.
Taumalolo gets a double in return
"Obviously Jason is a big personality in the middle, he is another big body in the middle and he is obviously a very experienced player so he knows the ins-and-outs of the game. He is also very vocal," Fonua Blake said.
“He is the best No.13 in the world and has been for a number of years. He is one of those players who makes everyone excited to play with him.”
Taumalolo's on field influence was best highlighted in North Queensland's semi-final defeat of Cronulla when he scored a try to level the scores and then made the run to get Val Holmes within field goal range.
Almost any other team trailing by six points in a sudden-death match with just seconds on the clock would give the ball to their halfback, but the Cowboys passed to Taumalolo and he charged over to score.
“He is an exceptional player, he has been playing for almost a decade in the NRL and I think that if you look over the course of that time he has been the best if not one of the best forwards in the game every year," Woolf said.
"A lot of players can have a good year but he has had really good years every year over that period. That’s what makes him exceptional and he knows how to step up in the big games."
Island of Origin
Tonga will also be bolstered by the return of hooker Siliva Havili and fullback Will Hopoate, who only played 12 games for St Helens this season but got to sing the club's victory song on each occasion.
However, Samoa have bounced back from their 66-6 loss to England in the opening match of the tournament to beat Greece 72-4 and France 62-4 in impressive fashion.
Match: Mate Ma'a Tonga v Samoa
Quarter Finals -
Mate Ma'a Tonga
Venue: Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington
“I think it is the most competitive World Cup, and there are certainly games that don’t make it look that way, but now we are coming into the quarter finals you will see how strong the competition is and how competitive it is," Woolf said.
“If you look at your big three, all three are playing exceptionally well and would go in as favourites but I am very confident in what we can do.
"We are building and we are getting better. We have got some momentum behind us and some players to come in who will make us better.
“I know Samoa didn’t start well but they are going to be a real threat in the finals.
“If you look at the talent we have got in the squad, how hard we have worked and everything we have been able to put together to make sure we give ourselves the best opportunity here, it would be very disappointing if we got knocked out."