An opposition MP, who was President of the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL) administration when it was dissolved by a court order, has been shortlisted for a key role in the kingdom's proposed new governing body.
An Implementation Committee, appointed by International Rugby League, has shortlisted Semisi Sika and the current Speaker of Parliament, Lord Fakafanua, to fulfil the role of independent chairman.
Sika was president of the TNRL administration dissolved by Tonga's Supreme Court in 2016 for financial mismanagement, with the Chief Justice at the time declaring Tonga National Rugby League had been "dysfunctional for years".
In September, during a 26 day stint as acting prime minister, Sika wrote to the International Rugby League (then called the Rugby League International Federation) claiming the TNRL had lost the trust and support of local clubs and Tongan players and recommended it recognise a rival organisation, Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League (TMTRL), as the country's official governing body.
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. He is now an opposition MP.
But the following month Tonga's Supreme Court declared the following the government and the TMTRL were "restrained and prohibited" from making decisions involving the national team, Mate M'a Tonga, including around coaching, staff, management and apparel.
Fast forward to May 2020 and an Implementation Committee is currently working with TMTRL to facilitate their application for membership of the international governing body.
Tonga National Rugby League was expelled by the IRL membership in March and the IRL confirmed last week it had received an expression of interest from TMTRL to be the new recognised member of the international federation.
The Committee has also shortlisted John Paul Chapman and Ipolito Lasalo for the role of independent finance director.
Tongan international and Committee member Konrad Hurrell said it was "encouraging to see the quality and the experience of the candidates for the new Board."
"This process has been a fantastic opportunity for the whole Tongan rugby league community to have their say, elect a new and really talented board who will lead the whole of a united Tongan rugby league forward," the Leeds Rhinos centre said in a statement.
Meanwhile International Rugby League insist their correspondence with Tonga's Prime Minister has been positive and say they hope that any future Tongan member of the governing body would have the government's support.
The IRL said on Thursday that outgoing CEO Nigel Wood had been in contact with the country's Prime Minister, Pohiva Tu'ionetoa" and that the IRL would like to thank him and his government for their support and encouragement of this process" towards establishing a new governing body for rugby league in Tonga.
But Mr Tu'ionetoa rejected that claim on Friday, telling Vavau Politics Online News that Tonga Rugby League still had a legal board and the government was awaiting the outcome of TNRL's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
"The Government of Tonga will decide the way forward based on the outcome of the court case. No one else should be allow to come and decide what is good for Tonga and its sports apart from the Law of Tonga."
The Prime Minister's office previously informed the IRL in March "that the expulsion of the TNRL is not supported by the Government of Tonga".
IRL Global Operations Manager, Danny Kazandjian, told RNZ Pacific that the Tongan Prime Minister stated his wish to work closely with IRL to resolve this governance issue in a letter sent to Nigel Wood but said: "he was unable to share the letter because it was "private correspondence between Wood and Tu'ionetoa."
Mr Kazandjian said IRL "have not assumed anything on behalf of the (Tonga) government, we have simply kept them informed, in the interests of transparency and respect for Tongan law."
He remained adamant that both parties were keen to see the restoration of Tongan Rugby League within IRL, which he said is a matter for the IRL based on their rules.
"We have stated that our correspondence with them has been positive and both parties are keen to see the restoration of Tongan Rugby League within IRL, which is a matter for the IRL, based on our rules, but of course we sincerely hope that a future Tongan member has the government's support.
"I am also unable to speak for the government on what their reaction to any CAS intervention may be."
Legal showdown looms
Meanwhile TNRL Secretary William Edwards confirmed on Monday he had filed a Statement of Appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport and received a copy of the Court's letter serving the IRL with notice of the appeal on 24 April.
Danny Kazandjian said he spoke with a CAS representative for the first time on Monday, following a mix-up with an email address, who confirmed TNRL had appealed their expulsion from the IRL.
He said the governing body is now in the process of recovering any correspondence with the Court.