Cultural ties bind Tongan Test side
While the current international rugby league landscape means second tier nations like Tonga will always be vulnerable to losing stars to New Zealand or Australia duty, the cultural ties between the players help forge incredibly tight bonds among the playing group, according to coach Kristian Woolf.
The current Townsville Blackhawks mentor, who has worked with both Brisbane and North Queensland, branded the Tongan teams he's coached in recent years as closer than any NRL side he's been involved with.
The infrequency of international fixtures for sides like Tonga means finding continuity in the squad is extremely difficult. They have played just twice since the 2013 World Cup; going down in an 18-16 nail-biter against Samoa in May this year and also losing 32-18 to PNG in November 2014.
Throw in the problem of players getting poached by Australia and New Zealand (either due to their own strong form or injuries elsewhere for the Tier 1 sides) and the odds of fielding the same side twice get close to impossible.
Despite this Woolf has been able to call on 10 of the 17 players from that last game in May for this Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Cook Islands, and he said a few familiar faces and the cultural leadership from senior players provided a huge boost given the limited preparation time.
Woolf said the cultural aspect is a massive part of the team's preparation and something he was admittedly a little naive to before his involvement with the national team.
"What the cultural side of things does do is it makes the trips very different from what a usual NRL or week to week game is for most of our players and that in itself I think is a real positive with the bond the players have amongst each other," Woolf told NRL.com.
"Even if they don't know each other there's an instant bond and an instant closeness. The teams I've been involved in are a lot closer than any NRL team I've ever been involved with and some of that happens within the space of a week.
"There's a real pride in playing for Tonga and I'm sure the other [Pacific Island] nations are exactly the same. Our leaders, our older players certainly run the cultural stuff and it's a big part of what makes the camps really good and a big part of what makes it fun.
"I think the players get a real sense that they're playing for something different. They're playing for their families, they're playing for fun, things are a little bit different. They're playing for their heritage, things are a little bit different from a week to week NRL game."
He said the Mate Ma'a players had shown a real pride and a commitment to the cause when given a chance to don their national colours.
He added the side's superior NRL experience and more settled squad may in theory be an advantage against Cook Islands on Saturday night but would count for little once the teams ran out.
"The guys who are experienced are used to playing big games; that mean a lot and that certainly helps – but at the same time it doesn't count for anything and I look at the Cook Islands team, there's a lot of guys with NRL experience there and a lot of guys who have been in NRL systems and a lot of guys with Super League and NSW Cup experience too so I look at them and think they're a very strong side as well. I'd expect it to be a very tight contest."
He said the preparation so far had been good and the fact so many players had played together in the 2014 and 2015 Tests against PNG and Samoa helped.
"A few guys already have a real close bond and they run the camp and the other guys come into that and fit in no problem so there is a good bond in the group already and was a real energy about our training session [Tuesday] night and I'm sure it'll be the same [Thursday] and Friday," Woolf said.
He added the strong leadership within the Mate Ma'a was a huge benefit to the squad.
"We've got a couple of strong leaders. [Captain] Sika [Manu] has been outstanding there for a couple of years. He's been the captain ever since I've been coach, he's stayed there because he does an outstanding job, he's an outstanding leader and he's a good example for the young Tongan players as well.
"He's very well supported by guys like [Huddersfield back-rower] Ukuma Ta'ai. Ukuma's not as big a name as some of the other guys but he's very, very passionate and he's a real leader in our mix.
"He's outstanding as a person and as a leader and he supports Sika very well. Some younger guys that are coming through that I think will develop into really good leaders, guys like Manu Ma'u.
"He's relatively inexperienced even though he's made a good impact on the NRL so far. He's going to be a really good leader in his own right, he's a very passionate Tongan man. Other guys coming through like Peni Terepo who's played two or three years with us and came to the world cup in 2013 and was involved in PNG and the May Test as well. He's starting to find his feet as a regular NRL player and he's got some real leadership potential about him."
The World Cup qualifier between Tonga and the Cook Islands will be live streamed on NRL.com from 7.30pm on Saturday night AEDT.