Manly utility Manase Fainu has knocked back an approach from New Zealand coach Michael Maguire and is set to line up against the Kiwis after being selected in a 23-man Tonga Mate Ma’a squad for the opening match of the newly formed Oceania Cup.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf will name a formidable squad on Wednesday, with former Warriors and Wests Tigers back Tui Lolohea to return from Leeds to take on the playmaking duties.
Lolohea will be the only Super League player in the squad, which will again be led by NRL stars Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita, Sio Siua Taukeaho, Will Hopoate and Michael Jennings.
Brisbane forward Tevita Pangai has opted to stick with Tonga over NSW and Fainu has made a similar decision after attracting interest from the Kiwis.
The 20-year-old was chosen in an extended Tonga squad for last year’s Test against Australia but could not play due to a three match ban after pleading guilty to filming a sex act without consent.
Fainu's breakout 2019 campaign has seen him speak with Maguire and NSW coach Brad Fittler in recent months given he is eligible for Australia, Tonga and the Kiwis.
But despite Maguire's interest and the chance to push Melbourne's Brandon Smith for the New Zealand No.9 spot, Fainu is aiming to line up opposite the Kiwis in the June 22 mid-season Test at Mt Smart Stadium.
The Sydney-born and raised hooker has told Woolf his allegiance lies with the tier two nation thanks to his father's Tongan heritage, pitting him against incumbent hookers Siliva Havili and Sione Katoa for a start during rep round.
“My first option is Tonga so I’ve spoken to Kristian [Woolf] and told him how I feel," Fainu told NRL.com.
“I’ve spoken to Madge. He called me ... and I told him I would love to play for Tonga.
“If I don’t get picked [for Tonga], I’ll just wait – because I don’t want to go to New Zealand as second choice ... that would be disrespectful to them."
Fainu's decision to plump for Tonga means he can still represent the Blues and Australia further down the track under international eligibility rules.
His decision is a boost for the island nation ahead of their clash with New Zealand given Joe Ofahengaue and David Fifita chose the Queensland Origin path, with Ofahengaue subsequently ruled out through injury.
Manly teammate and Tongan prop Addin Fonua-Blake has been in Fainu's ear for some time about joining him in the red and white, while Fittler's timely intervention – and a potential Origin berth down the line – was also a factor in Fainu knocking back the Kiwis.
"[Fonua-Blake] has spoken to me a lot about it," Fainu said.
"He’s always saying how good it would be to run out together for Tonga.
"I’ve actually been to a couple of camps and they are the best camps I’ve been to.
"They are enjoyable to be around – some good people involved with Tonga."