Grant Chapman: Tongan rugby league debacle shows Pacific sport shortcomings

OPINION: If you ever wondered why Pacific Island sport struggles to establish any credibility on the world stage, the latest Tongan rugby league debacle provides a timely reminder. 

Two years ago, Mate Ma'a Tonga emerged as the darlings of the Rugby League World Cup, after several star players - notably powerhouse forwards Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita - renounced their loyalties to New Zealand and Australia, and pledged allegiance to their nation of origin.

They stunned the Kiwis in pool play and perhaps should have beaten England in the semi-finals, while their passionate fans made the event relevant beyond the sports pages.

Ever since France fell away during the 1980s, rugby league has desperately needed other nations to step up and make the game competitive at international level, so Tonga's rise was a godsend for the game.

But it was ultimately unsustainable for the reasons we're now seeing unfold before our eyes.

Pacific Island sport just has a knack for shooting itself in the foot from a governance perspective and usually over money.

It happens in rugby union too, where only last month, Manu Samoa and All Blacks legend Sir Michael Jones warned that any financial assistance from World Rugby needed to find its intended target - game development - rather than disappear into the administrative ether.  

League already has a reputation for nepotism and political skulduggery, which probably hasn't helped grow the game internationally. Superpowers Australia - the dog wagged by its NRL tail - and England/Great Britain eye each other suspiciously across the RLIF board table, with New Zealand often caught in the crossfire.

This week's decision to suspend the Tongan National Rugby League's membership was loaded with vested interests.

This TNRL board came to power, after the Supreme Court disbanded the previous body for failing to provide fully audited accounts for offshore funds.

The new board also informed national coach Kristian Woolf that it would appoint a different coach to guide a second-string team at next month's NRL World Nines. He was to focus his efforts on tests against Great Britain and Australia, and when his contract expired at the end of this year, his performance would be reviewed, before any future appointment was considered.

Which is what any national body should do.

Former Tongan coach Kristian Woolf
Former Tongan coach Kristian Woolf. Photo credit: Photosport

But the board also feared the national team, under Woolf, had become too self-serving, leveraging its Mate Ma'a brand to generate personal and collective sponsorships, without accountability to the national body.

When TNRL named former Gold Coast Titans mentor Garth Brennan as nines coach, players threatened to boycott the tests. Believing Woolf instigated the mutiny, the board replaced him with former Kiwis and NZ Warriors coach Frank Endacott.

Understandably, the NRL isn't that keen to have a second-rate Tonga side at their showpiece tournament, while the British are nervous that an understrength test side will undermine the financial viability of their Lions southern tour.  

Earlier this month, when RLIF officials attended the funeral of Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pōhiva, they apparently took time to meet with members of the old board, but not the new one.

Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika, who appealed for the governing body to suspend the new board, chaired the old one. 

If your eyes are starting to glaze over, you've remembered why this was never going to work out.

Wisely, Brennan and Endacott have walked away from the car crash, while even Australian rugby outcast Israel Folau, desperate for any team to play for, must also be reconsidering his international rugby league aspirations.

It's hard to see how this will end well.

Now that Sika is no longer Acting Prime Minister and presumably no longer speaks for the Government, the next development may be where the politicians put their support over the next few days.

But perhaps the RLIF has already decided it can't rely on local management to nurture the game - and who could argue?

Where this leaves Tonga's involvement in the nines and tests is anyone's guess - maybe a half-baked Tongan All-Star team.

And the real losers will be those ardent fans, who burst with pride when their small nation topples the big boys, but have surely seen this kind of implosion before.

Until Pacific Island sport advances past these territorial disputes, it will struggle to live up to its physical potential in the world arena.

Grant Chapman is Newshub's online sports editor