By Koro Vaka’uta, RNZ Pacific Journalist. Radio NZ has a content shared agreement with Kaniva Tonga.
The Tonga National Rugby League board says it has been unfairly attacked publicly and the relationship with former coach Kristian Woolf became untenable.
Former Tonga coach, Kristian Woolf Photo: PHOTOSPORT
TNRL Secretary and former international William Edwards said the board was moving forward with preparations for Tonga’s October tests against Great Britain and Australia without him.
Edwards said Woolf was set to be offered a contract, before a sudden and public spat which led to his dismissal.
The prominent lawyer said the problems became apparent when a group of players wrote a letter of concern to the International Federation, the NRL, the government and other stakeholders in August.
Edwards said the letter contained information that only Woolf would have known and also contained a number of inaccuracies.
“What they [the players] had been informed of was false,” he said.
“The people who had the constitutional right to appoint the board and dismiss the board were never consulted.
“When you have matters like that made very, very public, you would have thought that the people who were behind the letter would have effectively gone and put the allegations to those it concerned.”
Edwards said the board was denied a complete right to be heard on the matter and they were belittled and effectively defamed.
This was seen as a betrayal from Woolf, who the board believed had been devious in his actions.
Previous to the rift, Woolf had asked for a three-year contract up to and including the 2021 World Cup.
Edwards said the board was amenable to that suggestion.
“They came back with a resolution that was emailed to him on the 22 July, suggesting that the board do that independently and appoint a review committee to review what would be suitable terms and conditions and terms of references for any contract moving forward, because we don’t know what his terms of employment were.”
Edwards said this was because they had never seen a copy of Woolf’s previous contract and were not sure one existed.
Woolf had been coaching the Mate Ma’a Tonga since 2014 under the previous TNRL administration.
That administration and board was dissolved by the Supreme Court amid concerns surrounding the body’s finances.
The court said “substantial funds” had not been accounted for.
William Edwards said the new regime, elected this year, had set out instilling a new structure around contracts and administration which did not exist in the past.
“We have a duty to the stakeholders to ensure that it’s properly audited, to ensure that people are properly accounted for, to squash any or quash any rumours of corruption, which has always been labelled against the Tonga National Rugby League from a long time ago.”
He acknowledged it hadn’t been a smooth transition from the old methods of doing things which may have led to some added friction.
However, Edwards insisted the current board had wanted Woolf to remain at the helm of the team.
“If he won the games at the end of the year, his contract would have been very lucrative to say the least,” he said.
“There was no pressure on him to be sacked or anything like that and it is a shame that it has to come to this.”
Edwards paid tribute to the now outgoing coach.
“For what he has done in terms of the World Cup 2017, that will never be forgotten. We accept he has made a significant contribution to World Cup and to Tonga as a team and to Tonga’s position and standing in international rugby league, that goes without saying.”
However, Edwards underlined the relationship had regressed and the board had been undermined to such an extent Woolf could no longer remain.
The former interim head coach at the Newcastle Knights was informed of the decision last week.
Despite this, Woolf, who has just been announced as the new head coach of Super League side St Helens, had the backing of a large group of players.
Senior members of the team like Andrew Fifita, Siua Taukeiaho, Will Hopoate and Solomone Kata have led a group threatening to boycott this year’s fixtures if Woolf is not reinstated and Edwards, along with chair George Koloamatangi, are not stood down.
Edwards said the idea of a player boycott was concerning but he said the door remained open for all players to pull on the Mate Ma’a Tonga jersey.
“There are players that are going to represent Tonga, whether they are from the last team or not, that’s left to be decided by them.
“But we haven’t closed the door on the players playing or representing their country and we are not going to close the door on them.”
Edwards said there was not going to be any action taken against the players.
“They have a right to represent their country and it is not for us to determine that they are unfit to play.”
Kristian Woolf refused to comment on the matter when contacted by RNZ Pacific.
Former Gold Coast coach Garth Brennan was appointed coach for next month’s World Cup 9s and could be a stop-gap solution for the end-of-season tests if the dispute cannot be resolved.
The Rugby League International Federation said it was closely monitoring the dispute which it regarded as an internal matter.
Southern Hemisphere General Manager Jeremy Edwards, (no relation of William), said the RLIF would consider taking a more active role in proceedings if the situation continued to deteriorate.