Opinion: Tonga Rugby League standoff a shambles

1:52 pm on 19 September 2019

Never mind the Tonga team, international rugby league only exists because of Kristian Woolf, Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo.

Mate Ma'a Tonga Head Coach Kristian Woolf.

Sacked Tonga Rugby League coach Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Tongan National Rugby League (TNRL) and Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) haven't done a flaming thing to invigorate the Test-match game.

Without Woolf, Fifita and Taumalolo taking Tonga from nothing to something, there'd hardly be a person anywhere with the slightest interest in international football.

Sadly no good deed goes unpunished. No sooner does the trio make Test rugby league viable again, than a few others fancy a slice.

Suddenly the TNRL want to dictate terms, sacking Woolf among other things. Naturally Fifita and co aren't that fussed with that, wondering aloud how the TNRL can make decisions about a team - and a world game - that owes all of its standing to Woolf and themselves.

The Mickey Mouse World Cup Nines are now under threat, along with scheduled Tests against Great Britain and Australia, as the Tongan players prepare to withdraw their services.

Fifita has said he and about 30 others are prepared to boycott matches while the present TNRL board remains in place.

You'd dismiss that sort of talk, in isolation. Condemn the players involved and demand they yield to the TNRL's wishes. But not in this instance. No way.

Sometimes you exaggerate for effect when writing comment pieces. You're not fibbing so much as just pushing a fair point to its absolute limit.

Not this time.

The revival of international rugby league really does owe itself to Woolf, Fifita and Taumalolo. Then-Kiwis coach David Kidwell probably deserves a mention too, given it was his appointment that helped a few more players to choose Tonga over New Zealand as well.

If Woolf, who's about to take charge at glamour English club St Helens, was not able to convince Fifita and Taumalolo to play for Tonga at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, we wouldn't be having this conversation now.

Next thing you know Manu Ma'u, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and David Fusitua decide to declare for Tonga too. Will Hopoate and Michael Jennings the same.

Fifita had been named in Australia's side, while Taumalolo was arguably New Zealand's best player. These weren't rejects or afterthoughts, but elite players who embraced their nation of heritage rather than the customary Tier One country.

Since then others, such as Tevita Pangai, have resisted State of Origin overtures, preferring to stick tight with Tonga.

Until now, of course.

Andrew Fifita leads the Tongan Sipi Tau ahead of the test against Australia in Auckland last year.

Andrew Fifita leading the Tongan Sipi Tau. Photo: Photosport

Now people who have Messrs Woolf, Fifita and Taumalolo to thank for the fact they have any standing in the game, want to use that to trample all over them. To demand that they call the shots for a team that are the creation of their former coach and (maybe) former players.

You can't, as TNRL have done, install Frank Endacott as Woolf's replacement. This is one of those exceptionally rare instances where the players deserve to decide.

Fifita has already said he doesn't believe Endacott, the former Kiwis coach, is the right choice.

Nice bloke and all, but Endacott hasn't coached anyone in 15 years and, even at his brief peak, wasn't regarded as among rugby league's greatest minds. He fostered a collegial atmosphere within the Kiwis' side, but that was about it.

Not to worry, the RLIF have promised to come to the rescue. They've not had any contact with the players, but are confident of brokering a deal that will see Tonga field its best team for the Nines and subsequent Test matches.

Good luck with that. Fifita, for instance, has never been a man easily talked into anything he doesn't fancy. Forthright and charismatic, Fifita is a man whose teammates will support any decision he comes to.

Remember, these are guys who turned their backs on New Zealand and Australia. Guys not swayed by the status quo or demands to do as they're told.

These are players who took a punt on Woolf and each other because they wanted something different. In doing so, they became the most in-demand side in the sport.

Do people honestly think that, having built a genuine rugby league movement, that these players are going to be told what to do by dudes in nice suits?

New Zealand Rugby tried to tap into this. They took the All Blacks to Hamilton, where Tonga tipped over the Kiwis in the Rugby League World Cup, and hoped the ground would burst at the seams with ecstatic fans.

They looked at the seas of red - and spine-tingling singing - that have greeted England and Australia at Mt Smart Stadium and assumed the same would happen for rugby.

Mate Ma'a Tonga isn't something created on whiteboards and with the help of focus groups. It's not the result of TNRL development programmes or investment.

It's something built by three men, one of whom has been sacked, with the other two left disenfranchised.

If Fifita, Taumalolo and the rest of the players walk away from Tonga, then they'll take the very best thing about international rugby league with them.

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