Tongan stars to turn down Kiwis
TONGA coach Kristian Woolf has no concerns with Michael Maguire trying to lure his players back to the Kiwis, with Woolf confident they will be sticking with the Mate Ma’a for next month’s Pacific Test.
During his announcement as coach of New Zealand earlier this month Maguire said the door was open for the likes of Jason Taumalolo and David Fusitu’a to return to the Kiwis jersey, despite their last-minute switch to play for Tonga at the 2017 World Cup.
With players able to change between tier one and two nations under international rugby league’s eligibility laws, there is nothing to stop them from swapping countries again.
Taumalolo is yet to confirm his international allegiance but the North Queensland wrecking ball is widely expected to remain with Tonga, while last week Warriors winger David Fusitu’a, the NRL’s joint-leading tryscorer, said he was still coming to a decision.
Given their talent, Woolf is not surprised that Maguire would be so keen to welcome them back but he is preparing as if they will be available for the upcoming clash against Samoa.
‘‘Michael Maguire is a terrific signing for New Zealand. I think he will really strengthen New Zealand rugby league and make them very successful,’’ said Woolf, who is also in charge of Cowboys feeder club Townsville Blackhawks.
‘‘But it doesn’t really concern me because what we built within the group and the bond that the Tongan players have between each other, I would be very surprised if that team to a man isn’t playing together again this year.’’
Woolf said Tonga’s giantkilling run to the World Cup semifinals, which included an upset over the Kiwis, and the phenomenal support they received has prompted more players to put their hand up for the Pacific nation.
But he fears how long the interest can be sustained if they – and other tier two nations – are not given more meaningful matches.
Tonga is close to finalising a test against Australia in October but at this point, the Samoa clash in Sydney is their only confirmed fixture for 2018.
The Kiwis, meanwhile, have six tests scheduled this year, including four against England.
Then there is also the massive disparity in payments between tier one and two nations to factor PHOTOSPORT in. It is understood players from New Zealand, Australia and England received up to $50,000 for the World Cup while their counterparts from smaller nations such as Tonga got by on $30 per diems and minimal match payments.
‘‘I don’t think the decision whether they want to play for Tonga is a difficult one. What makes it difficult is the fact that outside of Australia, New Zealand and England you still don’t have an international calendar,’’ GETTY IMAGES Woolf said. ‘‘If a player commits to Tonga they don’t really know what they are committing to every year. That is certainly something that we are trying to change as much as we can.’’
A test against the world champion Kangaroos is a step in the right direction.
Woolf said it was ‘‘90 per cent’’ across the line and while Hawaii, Auckland and even Qatar have been mentioned as possible venues, it will most likely take place in Australia.
However, the 42-year-old Australian remains frustrated that they were unable to secure a ‘‘grudge match’’ against the Kiwis.
The NZRL opted to pursue the controversial Denver test against England for June’s representative window. Maguire’s side also host Australia in October before a tour of England and France.
But after Tonga packed out Waikato Stadium against the Kiwis before 30,000, mainly Tongan fans, filled Mt Smart for the semifinal against England, it is hard not to see it as a missed opportunity.
‘‘Those two experiences really showed the appetite for international rugby league in New Zealand and it certainly showed that Tongans are going to support Tongans,’’ Woolf said.
Jason Taumalolo is likely to stick with Tonga.
David Fusitu’a is still coming to a decision.