28 Nov 2017

Sport: Tonga league coach expects star players to stay

1:28 pm on 28 November 2017

Mate Ma'a Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf is confident star players, including Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, will stay with the team and continue to represent their Pacific heritage.

Taumalolo was one of four high profile players to turn down the Kiwis in order to represent Tonga at the World Cup, alongside Siosiua Taukeiaho, Manu Ma'u and David Fusitu'a, while Fifita switched allegiance from Australia.

The Kingdom bowed out of the World Cup in controversial fashion after being denied a match-winning try in the final act of their sold out semi final against England in Auckland on Saturday.

Andrew Fifita of Tonga loses the ball during the final play of the match against England.

Andrew Fifita of Tonga loses the ball during the final play of the match against England. Photo: PhotoSport

But Kristian Woolf doesn't think that will be the last time most of his players pull on the red and white.

"I think the majority of those player who had decided to play for Tonga will play for Tonga in the future," he said.

"That's all provided that as a game we can given them something to stay with Tonga for and there has been some conversations and we need some of those conversations to become actions.

"As long as we've got games going into the future and games that I guess are of the standard that we need them to be at now."

Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita at the end of the narrow 20-18 loss to England.

Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita at the end of the narrow 20-18 loss to England. Photo: Photosport

He said the performance of Pacific nations at this World Cup had permanently changed the landscape of international rugby league.

"You look at the quarter finals of the World Cup: four of the teams are Pacific Islanders. You look at your final four: half of that are Pacific Island teams as well, in terms of us and Fiji," he said.

"So as long as the International Rugby League and the NRL want to continue to harbour that then those teams are going to continue to go forward and while there's games and while the players feel like they're getting respected for playing for those countries they will continue to play, that's for sure.

"I won't sit here and name players and go through discussions but the majority of those guys who made a decision they're going to play for Tonga have said that that's what they want to do in the future as well."

Tongan prop Siosiua Taukeiaho.

Siosiua Taukeiaho turned down the Kiwis to play for Tonga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Tonga have already been confirmed to participate in next year's Pacific Test, where they will resume their rivalry with Toa Samoa, but it's another World Cup match-up that Woolf wants to see become an annual fixture on the calendar.

"The Pacific Test has been outstanding but it also needs to be updated and it's gone past what it was four or five years ago, when you look at ourselves, Fiji, Samoa, PNG," he said.

"The growth of those four countries in particular at this World Cup and the success and the competitiveness against the big nations that all four of those teams have had.

Fiji celebrate their quarter final victory over the Kiwis.

Fiji also beat New Zealand and reached the semi finals for the third World Cup in succession. Photo: Photosport

"We certainly need to be playing each other on a regular basis still but we need to expand that Pacific Test and then we also need to have the ability to play some tier one nations at different times.

"For me an absolute no-brainer is that we as Tonga need to play New Zealand on a regular basis. That game in Hamilton, for a pool game, was absolutely outstanding as well and that needs to become a regular game on a yearly basis, I think.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis. Photo: PhotoSport

"If New Zealanders don't turn up I know Tongans will, and I'm sure New Zealanders will as well. If you play that at Mount Smart every year and I think you get a similar crowd and a similar atmosphere to what we had on Saturday night.

"It's a grudge match now on the back of this tournament and I'm very sure that New Zealand would love to play us and would love to get one back on us.

"And that's the way forward for Tongan Rugby League as well - the more we can play those quality games that's how we keep improving so that we don't just fall short in the semi final next time, we're actually able to win it."

Mate Ma'a Tonga Head Coach Kristian Woolf.

Mate Ma'a Tonga Head Coach Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Kristian Woolf is keen to stay on as Tonga head coach for the foreseeable future and joked he would remain in the job on one condition: "If Jason [Taumalolo] stays I'll stay," laughed the 42-year-old, who took charge of Mate Ma'a Tonga in 2015.

"No, look I'm only joking there but I am keen to hang around. I think we've really started something special here and I think Tonga's going to be a real force in rugby league in the future.

"We've all got to remember there's other guys that weren't available through injury, or have played for other nations, that are Tongan-eligible as well.

"I just think the future's really bright: we've done something special here, we've changed the course of the game a little bit and I certainly want to be a part of that going forward."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs