AUCKLAND, New Zealand-October 5: 9.40pm (RNZI/Nuku’alofa Times): The Mate Ma’a Tonga rugby league side is star filled with top class players for the upcoming Rugby League World Cup.
Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita are the standout names in a star-studded Tongan team named for the Rugby League World Cup.
Taumalolo, yesterday, pledged his allegiance to the Mate Ma’a, having represented New Zealand since 2014, while Andrew Fifita only made up his mind this morning, two days after being selected in the Australian squad.
Taumalolo will now be joined in the squad by a host of high-profile NRL stars.
Parramatta Eels forward Manu Ma’u, New Zealand Warriors’ winger David Fusitu’a and Sydney Roosters’ prop Sio Siua Taukeiaho will also play for Tonga.
Former Kangaroos Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou have also been selected in the 23-man squad, alongside Gold Coast Titans’ centre Konrad Hurrell, Wests Tigers’ half Tuimoala Lolohea, and UK-based duo Sika Manu and Manu Vatuvei.
“The Tongan Rugby League is very pleased with the squad we have been able to assemble, and when you see names like Taumalolo, Fifita, Taukeiaho, Ma’u, Hopoate, Jennings and Tupou in the team, you can understand why,” said Tongan head coach Kristian Woolf in a statement.
Speaking to RNZ Pacific, Woolf welcomed the “exciting” additions to a Mate Ma’a squad with “the most experience and the most profile” of his tenure.
“It certainly hasn’t been any real push from my end or anything like that. I’m always in conversations with those blokes about what they want to do and letting them know they’ve always got a choice, and as you said usually the choice is to go for one of the bigger nations,” he said.
“I think Jason’s really been the catalyst for it and he’s been the first to jump there and make a real stand.
“Obviously everyone knew he was going to be picked for New Zealand but he came out and said he was going to play for Tonga and gave his reasons why.
“I guess it just took one bloke to do that – and particularly a bloke of Jason’s profile – and that certainly made other guys realise that that was what they wanted to do as well”.
Kristian Woolf said he only found out this morning that Andrew Fifita, Manu Ma’u and David Fusitu’a were on board with Tonga.
“In the case of a guy like Andrew Fifita I really didn’t have him in the reckoning at all over the last few days, once I’d seen he’d been named for Australia,” he said.
“He actually rang me to say that he was considering changing but then he also rang me to say he didn’t think he would and I supported him on that decision.
“It wasn’t until this morning that he said that he really wanted to do it, he wanted to follow his heart.
“I know he made a phone call to Mal Meninga after that and Mal Meninga was extremely supportive of him, and he was very appreciative of that. I think that really set his mind at ease and helped him know that he was making the right decision.”
Woolf insisted talk of a players pact, led by Taumalolo, to defect from New Zealand to Tonga was news to him.
“No one said anything to be about there being any drama with New Zealand. I know there’s been a bit made of the decision around Jesse Bromwich and (Kevin) Proctor but not one player has mentioned anything like that to me at all,” he said.
“All the players that I’ve spoken to, in terms of their decision, has all been around playing for their family, playing for their heritage, the pride that they get and the pride that the family get when they play for Tonga.
“And that’s not to say that they don’t have the same pride with New Zealand but it’s certainly very very strong with the Tongan boys.
“That’s what all their decisions have been around, as far as I’m concerned, as well as the impact that they know they can make on young Tongan kids and being in a position to make decisions like that, and giving people the confidence to make decisions.
“I just think it’s a really brave decision from those guys and, again, Jason is probably the catalyst for a lot of others but they’re all brave in their own right and they’re all making a lot of sacrifice in their own right as well.
“A couple of them have said to me that the big thing that they thought of, in making the final decision, was when they’re standing there doing the haka, or the Sipi Tau in our case, how are they going to feel looking across at the team in front of them: whether they’re feeling like they should be playing for that team or whether they’re feeling like they should be playing against them, and that was a pretty powerful comment for me.”
But with last minute additions also comes late scratchings and Kristian Woolf said some players were extremely unlucky to miss selection.
“The toughest of those were guys like Leivaha Pulu, Sitaleki Akauola, Siosaia Vave – those kind of guys who played a lot of NRL this year and up until probably seven-thirty, eight o’clock this morning some of those at least were in our side and that changed with a couple of phone calls,” he said.
“I feel very sorry for those kinds of guys: they’ve always put their hands up to play for Tonga and they’re very passionate, as everyone else is, but my responsibility is to pick the best team and when guys are making that sort of sacrifice that certainly needs to be respected as well”.
Andrew Fifita, Mahe Fonua, David Fusitu’a, Siliva Havilli, Ata Hingano, Will Hopoate, Konrad Hurrell, Michael Jennings, Solomone Kata, Sione Katoa, Samisoni Langi, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sika Manu, Manu Ma’u, Sam Moa, Ben Murdoch Masila, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pangai jnr, Ukuma Ta’ai, Sio Siua Taukieaho, Jason Taumalolo, Peni Terepo, Daniel Tupou, Manu Vatuvei