8 May 2020

Sport: New Tongan rugby league body could be finalised this month

6:50 am on 8 May 2020

Tongan rugby league could have a new governing body by the end of the month after Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League (TMTRL) formally expressed its interest in becoming the International Rugby League's (IRL) newest member.

Tonga celebrates their win against Australia at the final whistle, during the rugby league match between the Australian Kangaroos and Tonga Invitational XIII at Eden Park, Auckland.  02 November  2019

Tonga celebrate beating Australia in November. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2019

The move comes after the kingdom's previous representative, the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL), was expelled by the IRL membership in March.

An Implementation Committee was formed to help interested parties prepare an application for new membership from Tonga and the international governing body said it has received no other expressions of interest.

"The Implementation Committee has worked diligently and continues to support TMTRL to develop their organisation and to complete their application," said IRL Global Operations Manager Danny Kazandjian.

International Rugby League Global Operations Manager, Danny Kazandjian.

International Rugby League Global Operations Manager, Danny Kazandjian. Photo: IRL

Committee chair Gareth Holmes was originally sent to Tonga last year to investigate the operation and governance of the TNRL.

This follows concerns raised by a range of parties including the Australian Rugby League Commission, the Rugby League Players Association and England's Rugby Football League.

"Basically to speak to as many stakeholders as I can: their local clubs, government, staff from the national team, national team players, former representatives...everyone and anyone that could give me some input on where they've seen the current structure going," he said.

"But also what they feel is the best way forward for a structure in Tonga to make sure the local league but also management structures and boards are keeping up with where they need to be to make sure that the game is continuing to grow."

Holmes' previous roles include a stint as team manager for the World Champion Kangaroos and as head of football operations at the Parramatta Eels, Manly Sea Eagles and Canterbury Bulldogs.

He said he did speak with TNRL representatives, including Chairman George Koloamatangi and Secretary William Edwards, but they were not very forthcoming.

"They had every opportunity to engage with me whilst I was there as they could. They weren't overly forthright in wanting to communicate with me - whilst I did meet with a couple of board members and representatives from some of their clubs they didn't welcome me in with open arms in terms of wanting to provide detail."

"I had no agenda going over there as to who or what - I just needed to get as much detail as I could and I felt that I did that with what I was being provided," he said.

"I provided my information back to the IRL and then some recommendations came off the back of that information I provided."

Nanise Fifita's lawyer William Edwards.

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

TNRL Secretary William Edwards told RNZ Pacific in February he still did not understand the basis of law under which a governing body can impose a reform or structure change in a national federation's governance or constitution or laws.

But Gareth Holmes believed the vast majority of the Tongan rugby league community supported change.

"Ultimately the recommendations have come based on feedback from people involved in rugby league in Tonga."

"So the recommendations were put to them and they had an opportunity to agree, disagree, amend any of those recommendations and the feedback from the people on the ground in country was quite overwhelming in support of those recommendations," he said.

"This is not necessarily something that the IRL have come out and said we think you need to do this or this is what you must do," Holmes argued.

"These are recommendations and if you're happy with them and you want to adopt them then we will help you do that. And that's what we've been doing now in terms of trying to help implement some of those recommendations."

Kristian Woolf has coached Tonga since 2014

Kristian Woolf has coached Tonga since 2014 Photo: Photosport

Tonga coach Kristian Woolf, whose sacking by the TNRL in September ultimately led to the governing body's explusion from the IRL, said Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League and its affiliated clubs have been very supportive of the national team over the past nine months.

As a part of the proposed new governance structure, fullback Will Hopoate and former captain Sika Manu have been elected by the Tongan squad as player representatives on the board.

"I am excited and grateful to be a part of the new Tonga Rugby League board and striving to help the Tongan National team progress as well as building Rugby League in Tonga," said Hopoate, who debuted for Mate Ma'a Tonga in 2017.

Sika Manu added "I'm very honoured to be part of the new Tongan Rugby League board and excited to help with the progression of the Tongan Rugby League team and also the development of Rugby League in Tonga.

Sika Manu, Will Hopoate and Jason Taumalolo during the Tonga national anthem prior to kickoff against the Kangaroos.

Sika Manu (L) and Will Hopoate (C) were voted by the Tongan team to be player representatives on the proposed TMTRL Board. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Implementation Committee has also shortlisted candidates for the roles of independent chair and independent finance director on the board of the proposed new governing body, but Gareth Holmes did not reveal the identity of those seeking election.

"When appropriate there will be a meeting to elect those two positions...the calibre that we have on the shortlist is probably more pleasing - the fact that we've got some very well-credentialed and experienced people that have put their hand up to be part of these roles so we're excited by that."

"The member clubs will have the ultimate say but I hope they will be equally excited about the calibre of people and the experience and qualifications that these potential candidates have."

Gareth Holmes said they are working with 29 local clubs that have aligned themselves with Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League but others are welcome to join the new body.

"Yes there's always going to be different sides and I think that there's always going to be people that aren't 100 percent happy - I don't know a perfect world where every stakeholder is always 100 percent happy with the outcome but I think we have that understanding that this ultimately what the clubs majority - nearly all the clubs in Tonga - wanted that they will support it and in time they will come together [but] I don't think it's going to happen necessarily overnight."

Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League have expressed interest in become the International Rugby League's newest member.

Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League have expressed interest in become the International Rugby League's newest member. Photo: Facebook

The current TNRL administration, headed by Chair George Koloamatangi and Secretary William Edwards, was appointed in 2016 after the previous board headed by MP Semisi Sika was dissolved by Tonga's Supreme Court for financial mismanagement.

A former Mate Ma'a Tonga international himself, Edwards told RNZ Pacific six weeks ago that he believed the TNRL still had the support of the Tongan government and the majority of local clubs.

But the IRL said it has been in contact with Tonga's Prime Minister, Pohiva Tu'ionetoa, and that he and his government are supportive of the reform process being undertaken by the Implementation Committee.

"The government has committed to working closely with IRL to see the restoration of Tonga to the international rugby league community," said Global Operations Manager Danny Kazandjian.

Gareth Holmes said Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League will now work through the proposed recommendations agreed upon by 29 local clubs before giving the required seven days notice to hold its AGM.

"Once we get to a point there we'll hold an AGM with those member clubs and those couple of board member positions will be elected and then the two playing directors will be appointed as well."

"Timeline-wise I'd like to think in the next week - worst case just over a week - week to a fortnight I think that we'd like to have all this locked away."

Once an AGM has been held, a constitution adopted and board members elected it will be up to the IRL to work with TMTRL to accept them as the governing body's new representative from Tonga.

The TNRL is appealing its expulsion to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.