This article by RNZ.co.nz is republished with permission under Kaniva News partnership with Radio New Zealand.
Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf says the kingdom can win next year’s World Cup but needs a board that is truly going to support the team to reach its potential.
A decision to expel the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL) from the International Rugby League, IRL, was confirmed in March, although TNRL is planning a last-ditch appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
The former governing body had been suspended since September after it sacked Kristian Woolf over disagreements around control and finances, leading players to threaten a boycott of international matches.
In an interview streamed live on the Mate Ma’a Tonga Rugby League New Zealand Facebook page, Woolf said the players and staff could not continue to play under the TNRL Board.
“There was a lot of issues around a lack of governance, a lack of communication and basically a real lack of trust that meant that we couldn’t be a part of the Oceania [Cup] games at the end of the year.”
“The IRL have had to step in because they’ve had a board that’s fallen out with all of its staff, it’s fallen out with all of its players, it’s fallen out with the majority of clubs in Tonga, it’s fallen out with the NRL and it’s fallen out with the IRL.”
“And internally with a lot of sponsors who have been involved as well, so when you have that sort of situation you need the governing body to step in and take action and that’s what the IRL have done.”
The team wanted to switch its affiliation to the newly-formed breakaway group Tonga Ma’a Tonga Rugby League, TMTRL, which claimed to have support from a majority of clubs in the kingdom and had been endorsed by the international governing body.
“We really appreciated the support we got from Tonga Ma’a Tonga and the clubs, and the majority of the clubs [in Tonga] are aligned with Tonga Ma’a Tonga nowadays, and they’ve been very very big supporters of us and certainly wanted to help as much as they could.”
But Tonga’s Supreme Court ruled in September that TNRL retained the rights to the “Mate Ma’a Tonga” brand and said TMTRL was “restrained and prohibited” from making decisions involving the national team, including around coaching, staff, management and apparel.
The suspension of the TNRL opened the door for the top players to return to the red and white under the banner of a Tonga Invitational XIII dubbed the Kau To’a, who went on to create history by defeating Great Britain and world champions Australia in consecutive weekends.
Kristian Woolf, who has been involved with the Tongan national team since 2013, said the commitment and loyalty of the players has never wavered.
“I’ve never been involved with a group of men who have the ability to unite so many people so well and they do that because they’re leaders and they lead by example…while there was so much going on”
“And there was some people trying to pull things apart and there was a lot of misinformation out there – one thing that the players showed and really showed me is just how strong and how loyal they are and how driven they are for their cause and their cause is Tonga,” Woolf said.
“Through all of that – and there was a lot of things being said that were quite derogatory towards the players at different times as well – not one player ever rang me or ever changed his tone in terms of not wanting to continue with Tonga, looking for opportunities elsewhere or not being committed to what the whole group was doing.”
“I think that’s a real sign of leadership and a real sign of loyalty and that’s why we all support the team so much.”
An implementation committee was appointed five weeks ago to help to prepare an application for new Tongan membership of International Rugby League.
The 44 year-old Woolf, who is also in charge of Super League champions St Helens, said whoever succeeds the TNRL needs to be competent, back the team and unite the Tongan rugby league community.
“We’ve got the players and we’ve shown that we’ve got the capability that we can win a World Cup. What we need is a really united front, I suppose, moving forward.”
“We need a board that is truly going to support the team to reach their potential, and do everything that they can to provide the resources to help the team reach that potential, support the direction that the team has gone in as well as uniting everybody and stopping the constant battle that there seems to be for control of the Tongan team at different times.”
Woolf said the team wants any future board to remain based in Tonga and with a really strong Tongan representation and they support the move to appoint an independent chair and independent finance director.
The implementation committee is currently liaising with the Tongan rugby league community and the IRL said once that process is complete it expects to receive an application for membership.