Pacific | Tonga

‘Rugby league suits me better’

A cold shoulder from rugby makes the Brisbane Broncos a hot choice for 2023 Dally M Medal Winner Mele Hufanga.

A Tongan cross-code international is making waves in the National Rugby Leagues Women’s (NRLW) competition.

She’s known for her dominant ball-carrying skills, and her journey from rugby to rugby league has earned her a reputation as a threatening ball runner.

Mele Hufanga, who plays for the Brisbane Broncos, topped the line-break statistics in her debut season in the NRLW with 14.

She says it’s a nice statistic but it’s just her doing her job for the team.

“Whatever my role is on the field, I know I have to do whatever you have to do to get past them or get through them; that’s all in my head.

“If I’m going to step or I’m going to fend or I’m just going to pass, it’s do whatever it takes.”

Born in Tonga and raised in Māngere she recently won the 2023 National Rugby League Women’s Dally M Medal.

She was recognised as the centre of the year alongside Isabelle Kelly from the Sydney Roosters.

It also solidified her spot in the Kiwi Ferns team as their centre and they recently finished test matches against Mate Ma’a Tonga and the Australian Jillaroos.

Hufanga transitioned from rugby to rugby league in 2022, finding rugby league suits her better.

“I just feel structure-wise, game plan-wise, that league is way easier than union, and that’s the reason I enjoy it more,” she says.

The ability to tackle, get up and run back 10 metres in rugby League is a favourite of hers compared to lying among bodies in rucks when a tackle is made.

“I just don’t like fitness at all, like making a tackle and getting back to 10m is great, even though I still can’t make the 10 in time,” she jokingly says.

With an impressive 71 people she managed to run through for the Brisbane Broncos this year, rugby fans can’t help but wonder what could have been if she stayed in the game.

An article on Stuff said she may have been New Zealand Rugby’s “one that got away”.

Hufanga opened up about what it means to have a label like this being put on her.

“Vania Wolfgram is like a mentor to me. Before I went to the World Cup, I had a photo up on Instagram, and she quoted ‘the one that got away.’ I knew what she was on about.

“Even though I feel sad, I also feel grateful because if I didn’t go through that pathway, I would not be where I am right now.”

Hufanga played seven years as a professional rugby player playing for Auckland, Blues Women’s and Tonga.

In addition to her rugby league accolades, Hufanga has been proud to share Tonga’s cultural tradition of ‘Nifo Koula’ or Gold Teeth while playing in Australia.

She has pleasant memories about the times her non-Pacific teammates would ask about the richness on her teeth.

“It was funny as one of the girls asked me, ‘did you have to get a gold tooth because you’re Tongan?’ and I was like, ‘nah, I just woke up the next day and wanted to get one’.

Not many people ask me, but once they know I’m Tongan, then they’re like’ all Tongans have gold teeth’, and I’m like not all Tongans; some Samoans have gold teeth; you just don’t know them.”

Hufanga anticipates that more women will switch to rugby league in the coming years due to the sport’s open style of play, paving the way for a new era of talent in the game.