26 Oct 2019

Sport: Tonga dismiss distractions, focus on Great Britain

10:09 am on 26 October 2019

Tonga is adamant off-field distractions will have no effect on their performance against Great Britain in tonight's rugby league test in Hamilton.

The team is playing under the banner of "Invitational XIII" after a court ruled the Tonga National Rugby League was the only authority able to operate the official national side, Mate Ma'a Tonga, following a long-running dispute between coach Kristian Woolf and the TNRL.

Captain Jason Taumalolo says the off-field politics have not been a focus for the players.

"It hasn't really affected us as much as I thought. The boys have been great coming into camp and since they walked into camp on day one it's all been about footy," Taumalolo said.

That's the way we're going to keep it for the next two weeks in camp and that's the way we're going to approach the two games too."

Jason Taumalolo.

Jason Taumalolo. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The game against the Lions comes after Tongan players had threatened to boycott Test matches against Great Britain and Australia due to a dispute with the TNRL board.

Taumalolo says through all of the off-field drama the players have remained united.

"Since 2017 the boys have had that special bond where if one goes we all follow, That hasn't changed since then and when one of our own senses that something isn't right I think that gives everyone else that bit of sense that they should follow too," he said.

"For us it was all about not just ourselves but for the bigger game itself and making sure that rugby league in Tonga is still playing its part in helping the community and the people."

Kristian Woolf.

Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

International Rugby League suspended the TNRL last month after Kristian Woolf was sacked by the national body over disagreements around control and finances.

The chair of the Auckland-based Tongan Advisory Council, Melino Maka, called for people to boycott today's game in protest at the treatment of the TNRL.

But Woolf, who is back in charge of the Invitational XIII, believes the team still has the backing of the Tongan community.

"The messages that we're getting is that people really want to get behind this team and that's exactly what they should do. It's a terrific group of men, they stand up for what they believe in, they've done that a number of times over the last few years and they're a group that everyone involved with Tonga, whether they be in New Zealand or in Tonga or in Australia, should be really really proud of," Woolf said.

"They've made a lot of sacrifice to represent the country and they've represented their country really well and again everyone should really get behind them."

Tongan fans during the rugby league test against New Zealand at Mount Smart Stadium.

Tongan fans during the rugby league test against New Zealand at Mount Smart Stadium. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Taumalolo believes Tongan fans will still show up to support their team against Great Britain.

"It's Tongan people so I'm expecting them to turn up even though the ticket numbers aren't real good at the moment, from what I've heard. No doubt they'll still be out here, they'll turn up late and they'll be lining up tomorrow night outside the gates so it should be good," Taumalolo said.

"Everything that's happened leading up to these two games it's definitely not what we're about but as we say we're still here to represent Tonga and our people and despite a few comments from other people in the community. These boys, even though they wear a different badge at the moment going into these two games, everyone deep down knows that we're playing for them."

Tonga chasing consistency against Great Britain

Tonga is determined to put in an 80 minute performance in the first ever meeting between teams from the Kingdom and Great Britain.

Kristian Woolf says, after coming up short in recent tests against Australia and New Zealand, it's time for Tonga to show that they belong at this level.

"We wouldn't have got these opportunities a couple of years ago and last year was the first opportunity against Australia to ever play the best team in the world...and this year we've played New Zealand already, now we're playing Great Britain then we get another shot at Australia," said Woolf.

"It's a real show of where Tongan rugby league is going - the more opportunities like this that we get the closer we're going to get to the mark and the more competitive we're going to be. We get the opportunity then to be a genuine player on the international scene and that's obviously what we want to do and we've got a roster there which says we deserve those opportunities and we need to make the most if it."

Woolf says the return of Ata Hingano at halfback alongside the in-form Tui Lolohea will bring some much needed balance and direction to their game.

"The halves has always been the area that we've had the least experience, I suppose, and having Ata there as a genuine half and an experienced half certainly helps and it complements Tui (Lolohea)," Woolf said.

"It also means you've got guys used to defending in their right spots - John Asiata is a middle and that's where he plays his best footy and he's a unique skill-set in what he can do around the middle and he defends best in the middle as well, so it puts everyone in their right spots."

Jason Taumalolo says they need to show more consistency and stay competitive for the full 80 minutes.

"You know we have a few good lapses and then too many bad lapses at crucial times and we've been punished for them. You can't do that against teams like Australia, New Zealand and definitely Great Britain tomorrow night so for just to stay in the game we have to be focused for the whole 80 and can't rely on special players to get us out of trouble," Taumalolo said.

Great Britain talk up Tongan trailblazers

Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett and captain James Graham have lavished praise on Tonga's

role in the growth of international rugby league ahead of their opening match in Hamilton tonight.

Graham is the only surviving member of the Lions squad from their last tour in 2007 and will celebrate his 50th test match when he takes the field against the Tonga Invitational XIII.

Great Britain captain James Graham.

Great Britain captain James Graham. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The St George Illawarra forward says Tonga have been at the forefront of the recent growth of the international game.

"International rugby league this past sort of ten years really has grown, we've seen that with New Zealand winning the World Cup 11 years ago. Tonga are coming to the forefront of it, England and Great Britain continue to make strides and obviously Australia speak for themselves so the more competition we can get, the better it's going to be for the game," Graham said.

Graham is one of ten players in the Lions line-up that played in England's World Cup semi final victory over Tonga two years ago and says they will have to be at their best to win.

"We know what this team is capable of that we're coming up against. It's a tough challenge, we just know it's going to be competitive and we have to be competitive and we're going to have to play close to our best to win," he said.

Great Britain rugby league coach Wayne Bennett.

Great Britain rugby league coach Wayne Bennett. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Wayne Bennett has coached against the majority of the Tongan team in the NRL and expects them to put on a good show.

"There's a lot of good players in that team, a lot of the guys have great reputations and a great majority, not all of them play in the NRL, there's one from England I think but outside of that I think all of them are NRL players so they're quality and they've got a quality footy team and they've played some great football in the last couple of years," said Bennett.

Meanwhile Tonga's upcoming games will be treated as normal test matches by the International Rugby League despite protests from the country's suspended board.

The IRL confirmed to AAP that Tonga's scheduled matches in New Zealand against Great Britain and Australia will be sanctioned international games even though they have been labelled an invitational team.

"The Tonga Invitational XIII is being treated exactly the same as the Tonga national team in an attempt to maintain continuity for players, fans and opponents during the period of suspension of the national governing body," a statement said.