Diving Deep Into Tonga Rugby League Woes

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One would assume that it's a case of 'problem solved' now that Tonga's rugby league team has a new coach in Frank Endacott, along with fresh coaching staff around Endacott. Unfortunately, connecting a few dots and meditating on this situation only leaves me wondering what happens next as Tongan rugby league sits on the brink of un-doing all the good work that has recently been implemented.

As international rugby league's darlings, I understand how many folks would view any movement backwards from Tonga as being detrimental to the international game. While Tonga's rise has been fabulous, international rugby league does not revolve around Tonga and if we strictly stay in this area of the world, teams like Samoa and Fiji are more than capable of stepping into any void left vacant by a Tongan slide. Internationally, there is a lot more to offer as nations build rugby league systems and start to develop slow and steady.

Get outside of your rugby league bubble and there is a world that has rugby league pieces to this puzzle full of potential. Obviously there will be short-term pain as I'll get to in a jiffy, but the ebbs and flows of international rugby league only present other opportunities to other nations; if I'm part of Samoan rugby league, I'm fizzing with this opportunity to surpass Tonga.

I do not know enough about this situation between Kristian Woolf/Tongan players and Tonga's officials, hence I can't break down intricate details of who is right and who is wrong. What I do know, from growing up in South Auckland as someone who wants to see Pacific Island sport thrive, is that governing bodies for different sports (and politricks) in Samoa and Tonga have some level of history of shenanigans. It sucks because from my perspective, what holds back Pacific Island sport the most, are the folks who run those sports in terms of governance and administration.

So when a situation like this arises, via my bias against Pacific Island sporting governance, causes me to immediately take the player's side. Again, I'm not sure who is genuinely in the right and wrong, but based on what usually happens and my tendency to take the side of the players, leaves me with a stinky vibe coming from those running Tongan rugby league.

Flicking coach Kristian Woolf away, may have a greater impact than many people think as Woolf was the bloke to bring this group of tokos together. Dig deeper and you will find a strong connection between Woolf and leader Jason Taumalolo, the type of connection that this whole wave of momentum was built upon. Woolf had a junior development coaching role, when Taumalolo was coming through the North Queensland Cowboys ranks and then coached the Cowboys Under 20s team in 2010 and 2011 when Taumalolo was playing Under 20s footy.

In 2011, Woolf and Taumalolo combined to take their Cowboys Under 20s team to the Grand Final where the lost to Aotearoa Warriors. Up until this year when Woolf took up an assistant coach role with Newcastle Knights, Woolf coached Townsville Blackhawks and that means that Woolf and Taumalolo would have continued their relationship in Townsville (where the Cowboys are based) for a further seven years. I'd suggest that Woolf and Taumalolo have known each other and built their relationship for 10+ years.

That's why Taumalolo went back to represent Tonga. I believe Woolf would have helped Taumalolo understand the impact he could have for an extremely proud island nation and then, being the leader that he is with the mana that Taumalolo has, Taumalolo thrived with that responsibility. Taumalolo and Woolf are the men responsible for what we have witnessed over the last few years.

Now, Tonga Rugby League has decided to part ways with Woolf. There has been some kind of dispute between TRL and Woolf, along with other management staff and as you would expect, Taumalolo is now leading the fight agains TRL. Regardless of who is right or wrong, TRL appear to have alienated their team's leader and that could have a ripplin' impact.

John Hopoate has also been prickly in this situation, in support of Woolf and the players. I am not here to credit or discredit Hopoate, I am merely suggesting that many people have under-estimated the influence of Woolf for Tonga and that Hopoate's influence is also under-estimated. Regardless of how influential Woolf was as a footy coach, Woolf was a palangi coaching Tonga and thus, Tonga needed a figure to serve as a cultural beacon and that was Hopoate.

I believe Hopoate's influence was as important as that of Woolf. Hopoate would have been the bloke leading certain Tongan values in camp and creating an atmosphere that was quintessentially Tongan. Not only that, but Hopoate is a Tongan stalwart in Sydney where he would have a massive influence on younger players like Manase Fainu. The 2017 Junior Kiwis team had Fainu, Moeaki Fotuiaka and Sitili Tupouniua all on the bench and all three have gone on to represent Tonga since then; possibly via the influence of Hopoate.

At this point, I thoroughly believe that TRL has severely under-estimated the impact and influence of both Woolf and Hopoate. This is evident in the calibre of players who indicated that they will not play for Tonga under the current regime; Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Tevita Pangai Junior, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and William Hopoate. There were others who have also stated in letters their intentions, however that group named above are the leaders of Tonga's rugby league team. This reinforces my belief that TRL are lacking self-awareness in assessing where the power really sits.

Interestingly, Manu Vatuvei remains as member of the coaching staff after being in and around the Tongan team recently. This is the only link between the past and future, old and new, perhaps a slither of hope that this situation could be resolved without much more fuss. Alternatively, one could suggest that those aligned themselves with TRL right now may be doing so for their personal best interests.

As for appointing Frand Endacott as coach, I believe that is a major step backwards. This flows back to under-estimating Woolf's influence as Woolf has been working around the NRL for the past 15 years, with intricate knowledge of how modern rugby league is played. Other than watching footy and piping up when mainstream media need content, Endacott does not know so much about modern rugby league and there is a vast disparity between watching modern rugby league and then knowing how players are training, what young men value and how they prepare.

In appointing Endacott, TRL have indicated that they believe that someone who has not coached at a high level since 2005 can do the same job that Woolf has done. That sounds rather foolish and doesn't factor in how Woolf built the Tongan squad since starting his Tonga coaching journey in 2014. Not only have TRL alienated their key players, they have appointed a coach who probably won't be very good at this specific job.

The players want to play for Tonga. Hopoate's suggestion that the players will take up opportunities with Australia and Aotearoa felt like a threat, a point of leverage that doesn't quite seem genuinely realistic; Aotearoa Kiwis have moved on for example. Tonga might struggle to lure those younger players (of which there are plenty) to start their international careers for Tonga, over the bigger nations if there continues to be such drama. Fotuaika, Fainu and Tupouniua for example made their intentions clear very early on in their respective footy careers via the culture, atmosphere and pride in the Tongan rugby league team.

The reason this situation has blown up is because the players want to continue to take Tonga to greater heights, to further their impact in the islands. They are fighting for that instead of backing away and this action is nothing less than admirable. Unless a level of peace is found, I believe this will reflect incredibly poorly on TRL and the proof will be in the pudding with how coach Endacott leads his team of tokos.

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Peace and love 27.