Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo insist their upcoming appearances for a Tonga Invitational XIII against Great Britain and Australia should be regarded as official Tests and reaffirmed the team's ambition to win the 2021 World Cup.
The Tongan players have been caught in the middle of an internal dispute which led to the RLIF suspending the nation's governing body to ensure the viability of the end-of-season international program, starting with this weekend's World Cup Nines at Bankwest Stadium.
As a result of a legal challenge by the Tonga National Rugby League, the team will be known as the Tonga Invitational XIII but Taumalolo and Fifita said it was still a full-strength team so the matches against the touring Great Britain Lions and Kangaroos deserved Test status.
"They will be Test matches, I think everyone knows that," Fifita said. "We are Tongan and that is our team. They can say we are not the Tongan team but look at us; our culture is Tongan, everyone who is a part of this team is Tongan and whoever we bring in has got to learn the culture.
"I will talk more about that next week but at the end of the day they are Test matches – don't tell me they are not. That is our full Tongan team right there. That is our strongest team."
Taumalolo said: "I guess some people have their opinions in saying that we are not an actual national team but for those who are still with us it is a Test match. As long as we wear the red and white we represent our country and our people so I still think it is a Test match."
Fifita: Don't tell me they're not Test Matches
The squad, which will play under long-serving Tonga coach Kristian Woolf, includes 17 of the players who helped transform the international game by beating New Zealand at the 2017 World Cup and narrowly losing to England in a controversial semi-final.
After last year's historic Test against Australia in Auckland, Woolf told the players his aim was for Tonga to win the 2021 World Cup and Fifita said nothing had changed.
"It is a goal. We want to be the world's best," Fifita said. "I know we are capable of doing that, we are quite excited to get ourselves back to proving that.
"Now it is time to step up with the tier one teams. It has always been known as the big three [Australia, England and New Zealand] and we want to be up there with the world's best. I feel like we can compete with the world's best, we just need the full strength team that we have got."
Taumalolo acknowledged that winning the inaugural World Cup Nines would restore the faith of Tonga's passionate fan base, but the tournament is also being used to develop the next generation of players to wear the red jersey.
"We have got a bit of experience and a bit of youth so I am excited to see how the young players go," Taumalolo said. "No doubt there will be future NRL players and international stars too. As an experienced player I have got to show them ropes and show them what it is like to be in camp with Tonga."
Five must-see matches at the World Cup 9s
The players in the David Tangata-Toa coached Nines squad addressed the off-field turmoil before their first training session at Sydney University on Tuesday, with some revealing the personal toll it had taken.
"Our families have been peppered by a lot of them," Fifita said. "My dad came out to try and figure out what is going on. He was hearing one side of the story but at the end of the day us players knew what was going on.
"We thank Tonga and the fans and the people. The fans are the biggest thing, they mean a lot to us. When the red sea comes out they come out in force and we want to see all the Sydney fans come down and support us at the Nines."
Taumalolo said he had been prepared to retire from international football if the issue hadn't been resolved.
"It is pretty sad," he said. "Obviously we have built ourselves a pretty good fan base and a lot more players are opting to play for Tonga now. A lot of players have sacrificed a lot to be a part of Tonga over the last few years to be a part of this team so I was pretty gutted when all this stuff was happening.
"It's even more upsetting that it is our own people who are trying to that to our players, I am not a fan of it and the way everything has been handled is pretty disappointing."
Fifita believes he will be suited to Nines, declaring: "I am not your average front-rower. I am going to be the new halfback for the Tongan team."
With Tonga being drawn in the "pool of death" against Samoa, Fiji and Cook Islands, Taumaolo expects each match at the World Cup Nines to be played with the same intensity as Tests between the Pacific nations.
"The guys in Samoa, Fiji and Cook Islands like that physical style of football and we are no different," Taumaolo said. "We are going to try and muscle up through the middle and give them a go."