Lolohea set to stick with Tonga over Kiwis
Tonga's emphatic World Cup campaign has Wests Tigers fullback Tuimoala Lolohea feeling like a different man and he is likely to continue his international career with the Mate Ma'a.
Lolohea returned to Concord in the new year feeling refreshed despite having less than a fortnight's break after the entire Tongan squad returned to the South Pacific nation for celebrations, which included an opportunity to meet their king, Tupou VI.
Tonga reached the semi-final stage in November after upsetting rivals New Zealand 28-22 to send the rugby league world into a frenzy. They narrowly missed the final when they were bundled out by England 20-18.
The 23-year-old admitted the wave of excitement on the international stage eliminated any fatigue he felt after a gruelling 2017 season that included a mid-season change from the Warriors to Wests Tigers in June.
"I kind of look at the game a bit different now," Lolohea said.
"What the fans can do to our game and how much impact they have on our game.
"I've never seen anything like it. From the airport to where we were staying the whole of Tonga were on the roads. You can't describe it.
"People had banners everywhere and you wondered where they're getting their stuff from. All this material – where are they getting it from? It was literally anything they could find they were painting it red, putting pictures on and names.
"But it goes to show how much support we get. We're not a big country but the support we did get couldn't get any bigger than that."
The trip included a visit back to Lolohea's village, Lapaha, located in a small town called Mu'a, and the same village Tongan superstar Jason Taumalolo hails from.
The pair have since been honoured as two of six players to have the nation's rugby league competitions named after them. The under-13s up is set to be known as the "Tuimoala Lolohea Cup".
"That's the kind of stuff you hold tighter," Lolohea said.
"I know it's back in Tonga but that is at the top of the list and really important [to me].
"The amount of support especially from our village, they showed us so much. One thing that I will always hold is my grandpa's sister, she is really old and I saw a video back in Tonga and she was celebrating at an old age.
"Hearing stories like that melts my heart and shows you how important family is.
"We went on a village tour and don't get too many go back there because it's kind of towards the bush. When you get out of the airport you turn left to go into the city but we turn right to go to our village and not many people get to experience that. But it's probably a good thing because they are the crazy ones."
The experience is set to win Lolohea over to the Tongan nation for good.
A former New Zealand representative, he admitted the days of wearing a Kiwis jersey are likely to be over with an intent to continue representing his father's heritage.
"I've had my experiences before with both [nations] but the World Cup has changed what I think," Lolohea said.
"I've taken a lot of confidence out of the World Cup and it's something I'll never forget. There's a mid-year Test. I don't want to look too far ahead but my hand will be up straight away to represent my country.
"You do the hard work now and the rewards come later on."