Sport: Tonga league coach calls on more support from NRL, RLIF

Tonga rugby league coach Kristian Woolf has hit out at the sport‘s governing body for not doing more to support the international game.

Mate Ma‘a Tonga captured the imagination of the rugby league world last year, beating New Zealand in a memorable run to the World Cup semi finals.

The Fiji Bati also stunned the Kiwis in the quarter finals but neither team has a game scheduled this year outside of next month‘s Pacific Test.

Kristian Woolf said it‘s frustrating that more is not being done by the NRL and Rugby League International Federation to help maintain the momentum from the World Cup.

“I think we‘re at the forefront of where the international game can grow and become a little bit more competitive outside of your top three, and obviously Samoa, Fiji, PNG are also a part of that,” he said.

“And if we can come up with a calendar that allows for game like us playing New Zealand in New Zealand and being able to make that a regular occurrence then I think we do really grow the international game and, in particular, grow the competitiveness of it.”

Tonga celebrate a try. Kiwis v Tonga, Rugby League World Cup, Hamilton, 2017. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Kristian Woolf said he would like to see the NRL and RLIF have more of a voice in supporting for international rugby league.

“Obviously we made it really clear we wanted to play New Zealand and make that a regular annual occurence after the World Cup,” he said.

“That wasn‘t able to happen and so we then ed Australia and through Mal Meninga…he‘s very very supportive of it and he jumped straight on board and wanted to make it happen.

“There was interest from both camps for that to happen. We‘ve been told that it‘s 90 percent going to happen (and) we just really need the NRL and the International Rugby League (Federation) to come out and say yes this is something we want to happen and this is how we‘re going to support it and make it happen.”

Jason Taumalolo in full flight. Photo: Photosport

“I keep getting told that it‘s 90 percent all the boxes have cleared in terms of government support, in terms of stadium support, in terms of both teams wanting to play and the terms for both teams – it just hasn‘t been finally approved and finally pushed yet.

“I think that‘s what the governing bodies can do but I also think there just needs to be a push for – I always go back to the Tonga v New Zealand game in New Zealand. I really think that outside of Origin that‘s your biggest rivalry and that‘s your biggest event that can be put on at the moment.

“I think if we all want to make that happen I think it definitely happens but at the moment that seems difficult to do.”

Mate Ma‘a Tonga Head Coach Kristian Woolf. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The Kiwis will meet England in a one-off test in Denver in June but Kristian Woolf said New Zealand Rugby League have not shown any interest in a rematch.

“I certainly didn‘t get the impression this year that it was something that was high on the agenda (for New Zealand Rugby League) and I found that really difficult to understand,” he said.

“I just look at the games when we played New Zealand in Hamilton and when we also played England in Auckland.

“The interest that that generated obviously through the Tongan community but also through just the general New Zealand rugby league community…every kid around at that time was looking at Jason Taumalolo and thinking I want to be Jason Taumalolo and there‘s not a better advertisement for rugby league than that.

“You talk about growing the game and putting on events and New Zealand‘s always wanted an alternative to State of Origin – well I think the answer‘s right there. I just think if everyone wants to make it happen it happens but at the moment that seems a little bit difficult to get everyone wanting that.”

Tonga rugby league fans during the World Cup. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

Tonga expecting World Cup stars to return

Kristian Woolf is confident the vast majority, if not all, of last year‘s World Cup squad will continue to pledge their allegiance to the Kingdom.

Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita, Warriors centre Solomone Kata and Broncos front-rower Tevita Pangai Junior are among the names to have publicly confirmed their desire to play for Mate Ma‘a Tonga, while David Fusitu‘a admitted he was still weighing up his options.

Woolf said he‘s spoken with all of his players and would be very surprised if any changed their mind.

“I know where they all sit and it‘s not up to me to come out publicly and say what players are going to do – I think they need to do that themselves,” he said.

“What I will say is I‘ll be very surprised if we‘re not able to roll out the same team from the World Cup to a man or very close to it.”

Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita at the end of the narrow 20-18 loss to England. Photo: Photosport

Andrew Fifita hinted last week he was also keen to continue his State of Origin career for New South Wales, despite Game Two in Sydney clashing with Tonga‘s Pacific Test against Samoa but Woolf felt the comments were largely tongue-in-cheek.

“I thought it was a throwaway line with Andrew being funny as Andrew can be and the media ran with it a little bit to be honest,” he said.

“And then once it grew some legs I thought he started to think it might be a good idea but I‘d be very surprised if he‘s picked for Origin under those circumstances,” he said.

“I think what he has made really clear is that he does see himself with Tonga going forward and that‘s where his main commitment is so that‘s obviously great for a bloke with his profile.

“As I said through the World Cup, when him and Jason (Taumalolo) made that decision, it gives a lot of confidence to the other players that they can do the same thing and good players want to play with each and good Tongan players in particular want to play together.”

Woolf also had some advice for newly appointed Kiwis coach Michael Maguire, who said he was keen to have a chat to Tonga‘s former Kiwis contingent about returning to the black jersey.

“I think Michael Maguire is a very very smart acquisition for New Zealand. I think he‘s certainly going to improve it,” he said.

“He‘s certainly going to make them a very very tough side to beat and I understand what he‘s doing there in terms of wanting to see where those (dual eligible) players sit because they‘re all very good players who can help you on the footy field.

“I also think that there‘s a place for him to maybe commit to guys who have certainly shown there commitment is New Zealand and not guys who have got commitments elsewhere and that‘s a decision for him to make and for New Zealand Rugby League.”

Kiwis head coach Michael Maguire Photo: ©

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