Tonga enjoyed a boisterous welcome at the Wellington Parish Church on Monday night.
Over 350 ex-pats crammed into the inner-city church hall for a lavish feast to wish their national team luck ahead of their Pool A clash with France on Saturday.
They enjoyed a typically-abundant island spread that seemed to test the timber trestle tables.
The welcome also doubled as a huge family reunion of sorts, as it seemed that everyone was in some way related to a player in the Tonga team.
Eighteen-year-old Sisila Cuicupou said she is related to “a couple of” players", while countless people were there to meet their famous rugby relatives for the first time.
"It means everything to have the players here,” fellow 18-year-old George Taeilor enthused above the brass band’s equally energetic rendition of Wipeout.
Kissing and hugging
“I was born in Tonga, I love Tonga and I love the Tonga football team,” Taeilor said.
For those not sharing team DNA, one slender degree of separation seemed the norm.
Mavae Taulai travelled two hours from Palmerston North to support the Sea Eagles.
She grew up in the same town and went to the same school as scrum half Taniela Moa; admittedly a few years earlier.
He was the first victim when the face-painted Taulai, wearing a bright red wig and devil horns, threw herself into the fray to kiss-hug as many unsuspecting players as she could.
“It’s been amazing, unbelievable how the whole community is getting behind us,” the quietly-spoken Moa said, wiping bright red lipstick from his cheek.
“A few of the boys just found out tonight they’ve got a lot of family here in Wellington. It’s been awesome to see the families coming around to support us. And all the food. It feels like we are back at home.” he said.
The dancing was spontaneous and the noise in the hall was strikingly at odds with the calm and reflection traditionally offered by a parish church.
But worship and love were both in the air.
Three French journalists were welcomed with open arms and not treated at all like the outsiders they may have expected to feel like at such an event.
Reception organising committee member Ned Cook said when Tongan people decide to celebrate, everyone is welcome.
“It is the way of the Tongan people,” he said.
Tonga play France in their final Pool A match in Wellington on Saturday at 6pm.