Tonga 2017 RLWC

Photo Credit: NRLPhotos

Rugby League in Tonga has taken a major step towards getting back on track with a determination by the Asia-Pacific Rugby League Confederation (APRL) on its recommendation for a new national governing body (NGB) in the Pacific island nation.

The APRL has recommended Tonga Ma’a Tonga Rugby League (TMTRL) be considered for full membership of the International Rugby League (IRL).

In early July, a second group, Tonga Rugby League (TRL), threw its hat into the ring to be considered by the APRL as the recognised NGB in Tonga. The APRL board then met on July 20 to review both submissions before making its final recommendation.

APRL head of operations Gareth Holmes says this whole decision-making process fits right in with what the Confederation was originally set up to do.

“Our role is to promote the game to make sure these member nations are growing and to assist where we can in terms of equipping them with the knowledge, expertise and resources to increase player participation and recruit referees, match officials and coaches and help put structures in place,” he told Rugby League Planet.

“The Tonga national team has been on a steady increase over the last couple of years and in the last 12 to 18 months they really hit their straps.

“So, you’ve got a team that is now a player on the world stage, but you’ve had an administration that was probably not equipped with the level of expertise required.

“There’s no better time than now to get kids playing rugby league in Tonga off the back of the success of the national team.”

Tonga was suspended from international rugby league following a tumultuous period that began in September 2019 with a player revolt over the sacking of national coach Kristian Woolf.

The NRL the same month then withdrew its invitation to Tonga to compete in the World 9s. The Pacific island nation eventually was represented by a Tonga Invitational team at the October tournament.

Also, in October, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF), which is now the IRL, suspended the Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL) board and then in February 2020 it punted the TNRL altogether.

The IRL released a statement which read in part: “At its board meeting on 13 February, the directors carefully considered the position of Tonga National Rugby League, which has been suspended since October 2019, in the light of a wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders in the Tongan game.

“After that meeting, the board wrote to TNRL, advising them of the resolution passed at that meeting, which is to expel TNRL from the membership.”

The TNRL has since appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for a stay of the decision to expel them. That appeal is ongoing and has no bearing on the IRL admitting a new member.

Tonga automatically qualified for next year’s Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) by making the semifinals at the 2017 World Cup, although it needs to regain membership of the IRL before it can compete in the UK in 2021.

According to advice Rugby League Planet has received from the IRL, the breakdown in the old organisation was due to several factors, but essentially governance was at the core.

The new NGB will be tested against the IRL’s membership policy so it will have acceptable governance provisions that is hoped will insulate it against any future issues.

The IRL is also hopeful that the new NGB will be able to bring Tonga’s variety of constituencies together into one organisation, which was not the case with TNRL, which was in conflict with the country’s government, its clubs and its national team back in September.

CAS has set September as a deadline for the IRL to pass judgment on TNRL’s appeal, although that can be extended. However, there is no legal impediment that would prevent the IRL from admitting a new member for Tonga.

As to where things go from here, Holmes hopes the APRL will continue to have a role to play in Tonga such as helping to develop a strategic plan.

“I think the next step is to sit down with this new board and this new management group and say okay, let’s work out where your strengths are, where your weaknesses are, and let’s write a strategic plan for you,” he said.

“Let’s set you on a path to ensure that you’re sustainable and successful over a long period of time.”

Holmes believes that if they can put structures in place for the Tongan board, governance, operations and administration, and get them right, there’d be no reason why the same couldn’t be done in Samoa and Fiji and work with Papua New Guinea to enhance the development of rugby league in all of those nations.

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Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others.