Players and officials from Tonga Rugby League are hopeful that the appointment of Andrew Johns in a coaching role will empower them to retain more eligible players and develop into a force at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Tonga announced on Monday that Johns would be assisting coach Kristian Woolf and his staff for the Pacific Test against Samoa at Pirtek Stadium on May 7 with a view to a longer-term relationship through until at least the World Cup.
The eighth Immortal’s primary focus will be to instil confidence in Tonga’s young halves but also build greater confidence amongst the entire playing group.
Broncos forward Joe Ofahengaue represented Tonga for the first time last October in their World Cup qualifier against the Cook Islands and said that the involvement of one of the game’s greatest players will assist them in reaching some very lofty goals.
"Tonga's finally getting some recognition I guess," Ofahengaue told NRL.com. "Obviously we've been a side with not the right management the last few years which has been pretty disappointing but having Andrew Johns there is going to be way different.
"He's someone that the boys can really look up to and put some proper structure in, not just flicking it around. It's going to be a big help for us because we kind of struggled last year putting some points on the Cook Islands team and they were just a team that got put together.
"We had a big talk the day before the game with all the coaching staff and the players and 'Woolfy' was saying that he really thinks Tonga can be a top four team as well, not just a team that can make up the numbers.
"If we all put our belief in the fact that if Samoa can do it then we can do it I think we can get there."
Given their call-up to the Kiwis for the end of year tour of England last year Tonga will have to do without Tuimoala Lolohea and Sio Siua Taukeiaho against Samoa, the pair now ineligible to play for Tonga until after the World Cup.
Warriors centre Solomone Kata could be the next to be invited to switch from Tonga to New Zealand but coach Kristian Woolf hopes that by having Johns on board they may be able to stem the flow of players changing allegiances.
"I'd hope that having him involved does help with one or two players who may be considering where their rep future lies," Woolf said.
"We've got plenty of guys who are making choices between playing for Tonga or playing for Junior Kiwis or Junior ‘Roos or even Queensland and New South Wales Residents.
"To be competitive we want all our Tongan players coming out of the NRL or at least out of NRL systems and for them to be at that level they have to be dual eligible."
With Samisoni Langi coming back from a knee reconstruction and Daniel Foster contracted to the Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup in Queensland, Woolf is surveying his options to play in the halves against Samoa in a two weeks’ time.
Ata Hingano (Warriors) and Sione Katoa (Panthers) are both impressing for their respective teams in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW, making the influence of Johns even more important for the team’s development.
"They're all young and having someone like Andrew involved is not only going to help them but he will instil some confidence in them as well," Woolf said.
"Hopefully it's a relationship that we can build on after this camp and it helps them out a little bit long term.
"He carries a great profile, he's a great player and he's going to offer plenty of experience and plenty of confidence not just for our halves but also our team as a whole."