24 May 2019

Sport: Mate Ma'a Tonga coach praises player loyalty

11:58 am on 24 May 2019

Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf says Tevita Pangai Junior deserves a lot of credit for turning down the chance to play State of Origin and fully commiting himself to the national team.

The Brisbane Broncos star was selected in a New South Wales training squad last year but revealed this week he was no longer available for Origin selection and had committed his representative future to Tonga, walking away from the chance to earn a $AU90,000 payday over three matches.

Tevita Pangai Junior celebrates after scoring for Tonga against Australia in October.

Tevita Pangai Junior celebrates after scoring for Tonga against Australia in October. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Kristian Woolf said the magnitude of Pangai Junior's decision cannot be underestimated.

"There was a time there where he certainly got a lot of advice from different people that Origin was probably going to be his best pathway," he said.

"I'm not sure it ever felt really comfortable to him in terms of making a decision that way, to be honest.

"He's made his call now obviously - it's something he deserves a lot of credit for. He certainly could have sat there and hedged his bets and see where he ended up but he's been willing and brave enough to put himself out there and say he's committed one way not the other and I think he deserves a lot of credit."

Woolf said Pangai Junior's loyalty to Tonga has never changed and even if he had played for New South Wales he would have made himself available for the Kingdom's matches against the Great Britain Rugby League Lions and world champion Australian Kangaroos at the end of the year.

Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf.

Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"I think it's very much on the back of some really strong decisions by some very strong men...Jason (Taumalolo), Sio Siua (Taukeiaho), Andrew (Fifita), Dave Fusitu'a," he said.

"Those kinds of guys have made some really strong decisions, they've been really solid in their decisions and they've all had people try and sway them and try and tell them that they should do other things but as I said they're very very strong men and they're there for the right reasons and very good reasons.

"I think Tevita doing the same thing it's a show of his character but it also adds strength to what they've all done as a group and it really adds strength to what they're developing as a group as well and what that does for young Tongan kids going forward who want to play rugby league firstly but want to represent Tonga at some stage - it will certainly give them the courage to do the same."

Kristian Woolf said he's not worried about any of the current Tongan squad switching allegience before next month's Oceania Cup opener against New Zealand but said it was not for him to tell the players what they should do.

"My line is that it's a personal choice," he said.

"If they choose to go another way - and we've had players do that in the past - it's not my position to tell them they're making the wrong decision, that's a personal decision that they've got to make.

"It's very hard for people who don't have that decision or who don't relate so strongly to two different cultures to understand that a little bit sometimes and it's certainly something I've grown to understand in my time with these guys."

Tonga celebrate a try. Kiwis v Tonga, Rugby League World Cup, Hamilton,  2017.

Tonga celebrate a try during the 2017 World Cup win over New Zealand. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"If they go they go with my blessing and my support and at the same time they're very welcome when they want to come back when they make those strong decisions," Woolf explained.

"The only thing that I do ask of them is that they're not saying they want to be involved in Tonga and then pulling out. I don't think that's fair of guys that do make such strong decisions and strong commitments in the first place - we're certainly past that point of having to wait to see where guys allegiences lie. If they're unsure about their Tongan commitment then they're better off going elsewhere."

Kristian Woolf is confident he will be able to select the strongest team possible for next month's Oceania Cup clash against New Zealand in Auckland and said the hardest thing will be deciding who to leave out.

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