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Longbottom takes a sidestep for 18-year-old son of a gun

Andrew Mathieson -

It is not often that Maurice Longbottom – of all Indigenous talents that embodies the true spirit of Australian running rugby – is upstaged on his field of expertise by a rookie.

But before stepping out to cross the sideline, the exhilarating teenage prodigy Hadley Tonga looks set in the fast-paced arena of sevens rugby to burst out of the blocks and run past the side's established speedster.

Tonga signed an exclusive three-year deal in April of this year to enter the incumbent program to represent the Wallabies sevens that included the 2024 Paris Olympics, but in the midst of waiting nine months through the winter season to rehabilitate from an ankle injury.

The son of former rugby league journeyman Willie Tonga had initially turned away recent advances from NRL clubs Parramatta and the Dolphins ahead of completing his final year of study at The King's School in Sydney all amid rugby union's traditional heartland.

That snubbing may have had something to do with the 18-year-old always thinking it was only an urban legend that his dad once played 182 first-grade games across Canterbury, North Queensland, and Parramatta that bookended Willie's Australian league career until only recently spotting a photo of him in action.

Other than being rated light on his feet, Tonga had raised eyebrows from recruiters after running 100 metres last year in a blistering time of 10.84 seconds – while in the pouring rain.

While outside of the Wallabies' latest acquisition, Max Jorgensen, another son of former rugby league star from an earlier era, the most highly regarded player from the 2022 Australian Schoolboys team was Tonga after he would regularly carve up his rivals.

That brings Tonga onto the same teamsheet as an equal to the sevens trailblazer.

Longbottom's name was predictably read out as one of 16 inclusions in the squad for the eight tournaments of the 2023-24 World Sevens Series, the 28-year-old continuing his presence every year since his 2017 debut for Australia following a few NRL clubs once telling Longbottom he was just too small to succeed.

The Dharawal man from Sydney's Aboriginal community of La Perouse, the backdrop that produced the Ella brothers, said in his first year on the circuit that he wanted to "encourage our people to have a crack at sevens" and inspire an Indigenous revolution.

That has not quite happened just yet despite his ex-Wiradjuri teammate Dylan Pietsch taking on the sevens game all the way to the cusp of Wallabies' World Cup selection this year.

(Image: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images for Rugby Australia)

The pair both came through the Lloyd McDermott development team for First Nations players, after Longbottom was spotted once playing at an Ellas sevens tournament.

But it is another Wiradjuri man from the unfancied Western Sydney Two Blues that is the real bolter in every sense of the word, according to national coach John Manenti.

While Tonga's addition to an improving Australia sevens set-up has not really caught many headlines of late, Manenti and rugby insiders rate him a better future prospect than the much-hyped Joseph Sua'ali'i.

The Sydney Roosters outside back was lured to join the 15-a-side game to play for the Wallabies from 2025, just a month ahead of Tonga's signing.

The good mates in spite of attending the same Parramatta private school, albeit two grades apart, initially took very different paths through uniquely different codes.

Tonga is dwarfed by the leaner 197-centimetre Sua'ali'i, but most have likened him to a Marika Koroibete in the making, a far more robust type of winger where the men – 13 years apart in age – have both thrived on the contact of the game out wide.

"Hadley is one of the most exciting young players in rugby," Manenti said at the Australian squad announcement.

"He is super-fast and extremely elusive.

"He's only young, but I think he can make a real impact this year."

Tonga will look to fill the void out wide left by Australian sevens breakout star Darby Lancaster, the one-time Junior Wallaby now joining Melbourne Rebels on a full-time deal next Super Rugby season.

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