A stunning dressing-room promise from Tongan World Cup hero Jason Taumalolo has led to Cronulla Sharks enforcer Andrew Fifita turning his back on the Holden State of Origin arena and committing to the island nation.
In a huge boost for international rugby league and Tonga's rapid development as a challenger to the game's traditional heavyweights, Fifita has revealed a pact instigated by Taumalolo after last year's surprise World Cup finals charge convinced him to rule himself out of Australian and NSW Blues contention.
Fifita said he and Taumalolo had reaffirmed their commitment to the Mata Ma'u during a meeting with Tonga coach Kristian Woolf in Townsville before last month's round-one clash between the Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys.
He said Sydney Roosters forward Sio Siua Taukieaho and Parramatta Eels pair Michael Jennings and Manu Ma'u had also pledged their allegiances to Tonga, along with in-form Brisbane Broncos prop Tevita Pangai junior.
The Sharks prop was considered to be sliding down the pecking order for NSW, after not being invited to a gathering of Blues players earlier this year but is still walking away from potentially lucrative pay-days given the $30,000 match payments for each Origin game and $20,000 for a Kangaroos Test.
Speaking on the Halfcast Podcast, Fifita confirmed his allegiance to Tonga and told of Taumalolo's seismic declaration in the aftermath of a last-gasp semi-final loss to England last November.
"It was pretty much straight after the [World Cup] game, that Jason Taumalolo stood up,’’ Fifita said. "He said ‘I’ve got something to say’ and it was pretty much along the lines of ‘we went so well, I’m going to retire my jersey and stick with Tonga for the rest of my playing career’.
"Everyone went off, they were throwing things ... and they all started yelling ‘Drew! Drew! Drew!’ I was in a corner, just thinking about Origin, thinking please don’t [ask me now]. And I thought you know what, ‘I’m with him too’.
"And from there it went around to pretty much every team member. It went from me to Jenko (Jennings), to Siua [Taukieaho], to Manu (Ma’u).
"All the people that could play for another team had to say something and everyone was sticking loyal.
''I've been putting it off for a while now ... but I won't be playing Origin. I won't be playing for Australia again and I'm sticking with Tonga.''
While Taumalolo has yet to publicly declare his commitment to Tonga, Fifita's account is in line with that of fellow Mate Ma'a representative Konrad Hurrell, who last month told The Courier Mail that Taumalolo would be playing this year's mid-season Pacific Test.
Such a move would be a hammer blow for New Zealand, but a tremendous boost for both the World Cup surprise packets and the June 23 Pacific Test at Campbelltown when they take on Samoa.
Should the likes of Jennings, Ma'u and fellow dual-allegiance players Taukeiaho and David Fusitu'a (both past Kiwi representatives) follow through on similar promises, other players may well be prompted to commit to second-tier countries.
It's not about playing Origin anymore, it's not about playing for Australia, it is about me finding a happy place.Andrew Fifita
Fifita's decision was complicated by the scheduling of the Pacific Test, which coincides with the second standalone Origin and forced the 28-year-old's hand after 10 Origins and seven Tests for Australia.
"We versed the Cowboys in round one, it’s a tough game but the night before Jase picked me up and we went and saw Woolfy," Fifita said.
"I talked to Jase and Jase said he is loyal so we are going to stick. Manu has already come out with it, I spoke to Siua the other day on the phone and he is going to stick with us.
"You saw it the other day with Tavita Pangai, I talked to Jenko and he has stuck solid.
"It's not about playing Origin anymore, it's not about playing for Australia, it is about me finding a happy place. It is to be acknowledged in a team. I know Tonga want me."
Fifita revealed he had not been invited to a pre-season meeting of NSW players and only found out about it when Sharks teammate Josh Dugan offered him a lift.
"I have been in the team for six years now and I am still trying to figure out what was going on," Fifita said.
"It is no grudges about that but where my heart lays now is with Tonga. I’ve got so much from playing for that Tonga team and what we did, and just creating history and just changing the game."
NSW Origin skipper Boyd Cordner backed Fifita's decision, while the Blues still have plenty of depth in the middle with David Klemmer, Aaron Woods, Jordan McLean, Jake Trbojevic, Reagan Campbell-Gillard the leading contenders.
''That's his choice and we've got to respect that,'' Cordner said after the Roosters loss to the Warriors.
''He wants to play for his country, which is OK. That's up to him, that's where his head's at so we've got to respect that.''