19 Dec 2019

Sport: Tonga blasts IRL over proposed rugby league reforms

11:13 am on 19 December 2019

Tonga National Rugby League has slammed the sport's international governing body over the way it has been treated during the past few months.

International Rugy League (IRL) confirmed this week it had recommended a package of reforms for the sport in Tonga, following the conclusion of a two-month investigation into the operation and governance of TNRL.

Tonga TEVITA PANGAI celebrates his try, during the rugby league match between the Australian Kangaroos and Tonga Invitational XIII at Eden Park, Auckland.  02 November  2019

Tongan rugby league has been in the spotlight. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2019

TNRL was suspended by the global governing body in September after it sacked national head coach Kristian Woolf over disagreements around control and finances, which led players to threaten a boycott of the World Cup 9s and end of season tests.

IRL said it launched an investigation after concerns were raised by a range of parties, including the then acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika, the Tonga Sports Council, the Rugby Football League, the Australian Rugby League Commission and the Rugby League Players Association.

Kristian Woolf.

Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The report concluded that changes to the governance structure of TNRL "will support a more effective, unified organisation that better reflects the complexion of the Tongan rugby league movement".

However, TNRL Secretary William Edwards said the proposed reforms were undemocratic and were being forced upon them.

"This is being imposed against our will by a group of idiots that don't know what is going on in Tonga, who think they know what is best for Tonga, and impose their will without our consultation, without our right to have a say, and they're basically saying 'we're going to change you whether you like it or not'," he said.

"Our association has been running since 1988, and we've put teams on the paddock since 1988 with great success and then all of a sudden he feels we're doing something wrong that needs to be changed. What a joke."

Nanise Fifita's lawyer William Edwards.

William Edwards. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koro Vaka'uta

The report recommendations include the formation of an independent implementation committee to liaise with stakeholders throughout the reform process; the election of a TNRL board whose positions are balanced between multiple electorates, including players, clubs and independents; and new rules to regulate clubs' status as voting members of the general assembly.

International Rugby League has begun a 30-day consultation period with relevant parties before a final plan is presented for adoption and implementation by Tongan rugby league.

However, William Edwards said the recommendations had been presented in a manner that suggests their mind was already made up.

"I would never ever ever put it in the manner and form they've done it. They've put it in a manner that influences the person who reads it," he said.

"Instead of just making the recommendation, they've gone and influenced to the person who receives it, to the extent where they're saying 'we believe an independent chair would provide...'

"In other words, they're being critical of a count approach where the members of our association appoint the chairman."

Edwards said the governing body still had not provided TNRL with a legal basis for their original suspension, which led to the investigation.

"Firstly, this recommendation of change, it's predicated upon an investigation which is predicated upon a suspension," he said.

"So the suspension, they didn't tell us what we were suspended for, we don't know why we were suspended, we've been asking why we were suspended and they haven't given us a legal basis for the suspension."

Tevita Pangai scores a try during the rugby league match between the Australian Kangaroos and Tonga Invitational XIII.

Tevita Pangai scores a try during the rugby league match between the Australian Kangaroos and Tonga Invitational XIII. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2019 www.photosport.nz

International Rugby League declined to comment while the consultation period was ongoing but the organisation's Southern Hemisphere General Manager, Jeremy Edwards, told RNZ Pacific in October that TNRL were unable to fufill their obligations in the participation agreement for the Oceania Cup, which included the requirement to put a full-strength team out on the field.

"Look, it was an unfortunate decision, it was something that the federation you know doesn't really want to do that sort of stuff, but we see the value of international rugby league and especially down here in the Pacific and it's important that we do this," he said.

"We need to understand that the International Federation suspended the (TNRL) Board based on a number of evidence around that, and a number of reasons around that. This tournament we're in here at the moment [Oceania Cup] has nothing to do with the International Federation, it is run by a company called GB Ocenia Limited and is an invitational tournament, so it's two different things."

International Rugby League's Southern Hemisphere General Manager, Jeremy Edwards.

International Rugby League's Southern Hemisphere General Manager, Jeremy Edwards. Photo: Vinnie Wylie/RNZ Pacific

Jeremy Edwards said that TNRL, as a national body, had every right to sack a coach if they wished but needed to consider how their decisions would have an impact on commercial factors.

"I'd say that's their decision to make but I think there's considerations commercially when they make those decisions," he said. "Decisions have got to be considered and thought through and not only commercially but also the best for the players and that sort of stuff."

"They can make those decisions but the reality is, when they can't fulfil their obligations and put a team on the paddock, then you've got a problem don't you."

Despite the off-field drama, Tonga cemented its place in the top level of international rugby league after the 'Tonga Invitational XIII', coached by Kristian Woolf and featuring all of their best players, beat Great Britain in Hamilton before a historic victory against world champions Australia in front of 25,000 fans at Auckland's Eden Park.

Tonga celebrate their rugby league win over Australia

Tonga celebrate their rugby league win over Australia Photo: Photosport

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