20 Feb 2020

Tongan Rugby League saga: How did we get here?

1:43 pm on 20 February 2020

How does a country go from causing the biggest upset in rugby league history to being expelled by the international governing body in a matter of months?

Truth be told - the action by the International Rugby League has been a long time coming.

Daniel Tupou scores a try for Tonga,
Tonga v Australia. International Rugby League test match. Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand.

Daniel Tupou scores a try for Tonga, Tonga v Australia. International Rugby League test match. Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand. Photo: Photosport

The rise of Mate Ma'a Tonga, an international powerhouse

Tonga reached new heights during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup when they defeated New Zealand for the first time on the way to a semi-final berth, eventually losing in dramatic fashion to England 20-18 in front of a packed Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.

The campaign saw hordes of Tongan fans filling stadiums across New Zealand and Australia, boosting the profile of both the World Cup and the sport as a whole.

Tonga fans have turned out in big numbers to support their team at the world cup.

Tonga fans have turned out in big numbers to support their team at the world cup. Photo: Photosport

It also brought the coaching talents of Kristian Woolf into the spotlight, who had been in charge of the Mate Ma'a Tonga since 2014.

The success of 2017 was sparked in no small part by NRL stars like Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita declaring their allegiance to the Tongans, despite earlier turning out for New Zealand and Australia respectively.

The move spurred other high profile players to follow suit.

The connection between Woolf and the players was clear for all to see, with the squad attending a royal reception in Tonga and stars like Taumalolo and Tuimoala Lolohea even being gifted land.

A national competition was also renamed the Taumalolo Cup.

On-field success not a reflection of off-field trouble

However, behind the scenes there was turmoil.

The administration at the time had the shadow of financial mismanagement allegations hanging over them.

A 2016 Supreme Court court case involved the Chief Justice at the time declaring the Tonga National Rugby League, TNRL, had been "dysfunctional for years".

The TNRL was ordered to have its accounts audited and the use of funds was frozen.

The saga led to the TNRL administration eventually being dissolved by the court, an administration headed by MP Semisi Sika, a name that would pop up again.

Despite the off field trouble, the international stars that were Mate Ma'a Tonga shone brighter than ever with the team following up their world cup success with a win over their traditional rivals, Samoa, in 2018.

The Tongans impressive play, coupled with their fervently passionate fans filling stands and streets each game week, led to more unprecedented opportunities with fixtures against New Zealand and Australia, although both resulted in defeats.

Woolf sacked as internal divisions widen

The defeats, alongside continued questions around finances, led to the new TNRL administrators proposing a review of Woolf's tenure.

Kristian Woolf has coached Tonga since 2014

Kristian Woolf has coached Tonga since 2014 Photo: Photosport

It was just before this planned review that everything imploded. There was confusion over timing but the bottom line was Australian-born Woolf was sacked leading to a chorus of protestations from his players.

Those who had been under his recent tutelage threatened to boycott the 2019 World Cup 9s and end of season tests against Great Britain and Australia, guaranteed crowd pullers.

There were claims Woolf asked the players to sign statements boycotting the TNRL and was in correspondence with Tonga's then Acting Prime Minister, Semisi Sika, (yes, the same Sika who had been president of the previously dissolved administration), over the formation of a new national federation.

In a statement, the players sought the removal of TNRL chair George Koloamatangi, secretary William Edwards, (who had replaced the court-dissolved board).

They also demanded the reinstatement of Woolf.

Semisi Sika, still in his role as acting prime minister, sent a letter to the global body, International Rugby League, IRL, saying the TNRL had lost the trust and support of local clubs and players and he urged them to recognise the new Tongan federation.

The IRL cited these government concerns as a trigger for action, although days later Sika was no longer in power due to a parliamentary reshuffle.

The creation of the Kau To'a and the expulsion of the TNRL

Seemingly out of desperation, and with the World 9s and other internationals on the horizon, the IRL moved to suspend the TNRL thus opening a way for the top players to return to the field under the banner of a Tonga Invitational XIII dubbed the Kau To'a.

Court action had led to the TNRL retaining the rights to the now renown Mate Ma'a Tonga brand.

The Kau To'a went on to create history defeating Great Britain and shocking the world champion Australians 16-12 in front of a delirious Eden Park crowd.

Tonga celebrate their rugby league win over Australia

Tonga celebrate their rugby league win over Australia Photo: Photosport

But as the team continued to go from strength to strength there was still the matter of administration and in December the International Rugby League recommended a package of reforms in Tonga.

At the time, the IRL had said "it was evident that the current governance model was capable of improvement to reflect the current circumstances of Tonga".

There was a 30 day consultation period which ended in the expulsion of the TNRL this week.

The TNRL indicated it would appeal the decision which must be heard within a month.

The Tongan-based administrators claimed they had not been fully informed of what they were supposed to have done wrong.

Whoever is in the wrong, the sports world will be hoping for an end to the off the field shenanigans soon so one of the most exciting and groundbreaking teams in the region can continue to entertain the masses.

Michael Jennings scored one and set up another try for Tonga.

Michael Jennings scored one and set up another try for Tonga. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

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