26 Mar 2021

The soul of Tongan Rugby: New CEO on finances, fixtures and the future

1:13 pm on 26 March 2021

The new CEO of the Tonga Rugby Union is on a mission to restore confidence in the country's national sport.

Peter Harding spent four years as General Manager of High Performance with the TRU, before departing in 2016 when a new administration was voted in.

The 'Ikale Tahi perform the sipi tau during the Pacific Nations Cup.

Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

Since then he worked as a rugby consultant in Africa and Asia but said his passion for Tonga never left.

"My family's been in Tonga since 2012 and my son's nine and he's basically grown up here. He spent a bit of time in Australia, six or seven months of his life, but the majority of his time is here. My wife's settled with friends, we're quite settled here - it's a fantastic place to live and we've got a lot of really good friends here."

The TRU signed a tripartite agreement with World Rugby and the Tonga government six months ago, after the global governing body pulled its financial support because of governance and administration issues.

Harding, who is contracted until the end of 2023, said the Board has already agreed to undergo a full governance review.

"If you notice that both Samoa and Fiji are on the (World Rugby) Council - that's because they welcomed the governance review...which was put together after the World Cup in 2015. They've been through that process and they've had a rewritten constitution, rewritten review and so has Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea...[the] Cook Islands have done it.

"We're basically the last people in the Pacific to do it so one of the first things we passed in the first board meeting was that we need to have that governance review."

Peter Harding, new CEO of Tonga Rugby Union

Peter Harding, new CEO of Tonga Rugby Union Photo: World Rugby

Harding said it was a collaborative and consultative process with stakeholders in Tonga.

"We need to do that to update the constitution and also to get on the treadmill so that in future we can potentially get on Council and have a member there who can speak up for us."

Harding had no illusions that his job would be easy and was looking forward to many robust discussions in the boardroom and on the streets of Nuku'alofa.

"I know most of the players: I'm sort of plugged into most of those guys, I talk to them. I know the former coach Toutai (Kefu) pretty well and there's something that is a bit addictive about island rugby...so seeing I was here and I'd just done four years in Africa with various nations trying to sort out governance and management there so I thought I had the expertise so I put my hand up and I was lucky enough to get it," he said.

"Because rugby in Tonga is like it's in people's souls, it's part of the country and part of people and...people tend to have very strong views on how things are to be done and how they're to be run and it does occasionally lead to arguments or lead to issues and lead to problems."

Harding said the public were passionate about things they believed in.

"I struggled with that as a palagi when I first came up...that was a challenge which to be honest I'm looking forward to now."

Hire Power

Meanwhile the Tonga Rugby Union was close to confirming a new 'Ikale Tahi coach, after the preferred candidate was signed off by the TRU Board on Thursday.

38 people applied for the role which has been vacant since Toutai Kefu's contract expired after the 2019 World Cup, including a number of former Tongan internationals.

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Tonga's 2019 RWC squad Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

Peter Harding said it was important to get a coach and support staff in place as soon as possible, with two Rugby World Cup qualifying matches against Samoa looming in July.

"We've only just been reconfirmed as getting funding (from World Rugby ) so we haven't been able to do anything about staff at this stage, because we didn't have any money. There's no point putting people on if there's no money in the bank to pay them so we'll start doing that now," he said.

"The first person we'll get is a head coach so we can start getting ready for July but after that staff here (in the TRU office) will be put on...now there's got to be a negotiation to make sure that the coach is going to fulfill all of the requirements that we need, because part of our requirement for the coach is to spend at least four months on island to be a suppose a Director or Rugby type position and to assist and educate local coaches."

Additional staff would follow, with Harding largely alone at the TRU offices.

"We'll be looking at staff on-island like administrators and accounts because we've had a lot of problem with the money, but after that the first really on-island staff we'll be looking at will be a development manager and a couple of development staff to come on in and get stuck into what we need to do up here - get some energetic people to really start looking at the schools and looking at the development of the kids."

Change of venue for Rugby World Cup qualifiers

Tonga and Samoa will play their upcoming Oceania Rugby World Cup playoff series in New Zealand because of the ongoing uncertainty around Covid-19.

The 'Ikale Tahi and Manu Samoa were meant to play home and away in July, with the aggregate winner to join England, Japan, Argentina and a qualifier from the Americas in Pool D in 2023.

Peter Harding said the games would now take place in New Zealand in mid-July.

"New Zealand Rugby have been very good and they're going to help us out, for both teams, and get those games with Samoa there on the 17th and 24th of July...then the loser will play the highest ranked Asia-Pacific team to qualify directly to the World Cup," he said.

Tonga were also pencilled in to play a warm up test against Ireland in New Zealand the week before, although Harding admitted that was looking unlikely.

It's also unclear if their best players will be able to take part.

"To get the best people in that's going to depend on the MIQ places in New Zealand...We're putting all our applications together at the moment, which is difficult without a coach because he hasn't picked a team," he said.

"But if we're going to bring people from overseas - if it's from Australia hopefully there's a travel corridor between those, that's been on and off, but if they're from Europe we're going to have to find MIQ places."

Peter Harding said Tonga and Samoa would still be able to select strong teams from eligible players based in New Zealand.

Samoa beat Tonga 30-10 in Apia during the 2016 Pacific Nations Cup.

Samoa and Tonga do battle during the 2016 Pacific Nations Cup Photo: Renee McKay/SRU