Tonga's precarious position avoidable: coach
Tonga are 80 minutes away from being omitted from the 2017 Rugby League World Cup and coach Kristian Woolf insists that steps must be taken to ensure it is a position that is avoided in future.
Tonga's clash with the Cook Islands at Campbelltown on Saturday night is much more than an international 'friendly' with the winner to claim the final Pacific Nation spot in the World Cup to be played in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in two years' time.
Both nations took part in the 2013 World Cup in Great Britain and France but will be without players on Saturday night who have since declared their representative allegiances to either New Zealand or Australia.
Tuimoala Lolohea and Sio Siua Taukeiaho starred for Tonga in their 18-16 loss to Samoa on the Gold Coast in May while Maroon-in-waiting Dylan Napa has switched his allegiance after playing for the Cook Islands two years ago.
If Napa had chosen to play this weekend he would have become ineligible to play for Queensland and Australia until after the 2017 World Cup and Woolf is adamant that the criteria must be changed in order to further develop second-tier nations.
"In my view it is a rule that needs to be amended if we are to truly develop the second tier nations into competitive Test teams," Woolf told NRL.com.
"As it stands at the moment you are effectively punished for choosing one over the other but if you are overlooked for a first-tier nation I believe you should be able to play for a second-tier nation without being punished. And you should be able to change the other way too without penalty.
"When you get all the Tongan boys together there is a really close bond that doesn't take long even for the new guys to become part of.
"They're in that bond really, really quickly and it's a different camp. There's Sipi Tau practice, there's national anthem practice, hymns and things like that that you don't experience with the NRL.
"The players get a lot out of that and the fact is it is different and you're playing footy for different reasons. You're not just playing for your club that contracts you to win games and win comps, you're playing for your family and the pride that they get and your heritage and the bond that the players do have being of Tongan descent."
The Tongan national team has played just four recognised Tests since the 2009 World Cup, three of which came at the 2013 World Cup where they registered wins over the Cook Islands (22-16) and Italy (16-0) and went down by two points to Scotland (26-24) to miss out on the quarter-finals.
Only a late try to Dominique Peyroux and some Sam Kasiano heroics in defence allowed the fourth-ranked Samoa to squeeze past Tonga by two points over the Representative Round and Woolf has no doubt that with regular football Tonga could become an international powerhouse.
They are currently ranked below the United States, Italy, Serbia and Canada on the Rugby League International Federation world rankings despite boasting a team on Saturday with 14 current NRL players in their ranks.
"A lot hinges on this game," Woolf said of their clash with the Cook Islands.
"For a number of reasons – the biggest of which is that we just don't get an opportunity to play as a Tongan team – we're ranked No.15 in the world at the moment and we're not guaranteed a spot in the World Cup and I think that's a travesty from both angles.
"If you look at the May Test, there's no way that Tonga is 15th in the world. If we can get the best players on the field together, I think we can be very competitive.
"If you look at where the growth of rugby league is particularly in terms of international rugby league, of the two teams that are likely to be most competitive against the big three (New Zealand, Australia and England) Samoa have shown that they certainly are and Tonga is not that far behind.
"You certainly need to have both teams in the World Cup and this team has got a lot riding on it.
"The way that our blokes have thrown themselves into the preparation so far and with the quality we've got here I'd like to think they're going to give themselves every chance to make sure that happens as well."
The Tonga v Cook Islands World Cup Qualifier will be live streamed on NRL.com from 7.30pm AEDT on Saturday.