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Rugby League World Cup: Tonga aiming to complete rise on RL's biggest stage

Tonga head coach Kristian Woolf and joint-captain Jason Taumalolo reflect on the rise of the Pacific Islanders as they head into this year's World Cup among the favourites; Tonga kick off their campaign against Papua New Guinea on Tuesday evening (kick-off 7.30pm)

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JUNE 25: Siliva Havili of Tonga leads the kailao ahead of during the Men's International test Match between the New Zealand Kiwis and Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium on June 25, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

If Kristian Woolf was unsure of what to expect when he first walked into camp with the Tonga national team nine years ago, it did not take long for him to recognise the potential which has led them going into this year's Rugby League World Cup as one of the title contenders.

Woolf, then an assistant with NRL side Brisbane Broncos, was brought in to help prepare the team for the inaugural mid-year Pacific Test against fierce rivals Samoa - a match Tonga won 36-4 which was abandoned three minutes from time just as they were about to kick a conversion due to a celebratory pitch invasion.

The build-up and the match itself are still clear memories for the 47-year-old, who was subsequently appointed head coach in 2014 and has been with Tonga nearly every step of the way of their rise in the past decade, including the historic 16-12 win over world champions Australia three years ago.

"Straight away, I could just sense that real desire, passion and want to represent Tonga, and that real pride all the players had in just being Tongan first and foremost, and having the ability to represent Tonga," Woolf said, looking back on those early experiences.

"It was my first glimpse of not only the players but how passionate the fans were. It was addictive - something you wanted to be around again and be a part of going forward.

"I remember talking to the players who were involved after that and about the potential, and there were so many other players I wasn't aware of at that stage who were Tongan and had turned up at a motel and talked about wanting to be involved and what they wanted to see it look like so they could be involved.

"I guess I saw the potential there and that's why I wanted to be involved from that date."

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PENRITH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 20: Fans invade the field before fulltime during the International Test Match between Tonga and Samoa at Centrebet Stadium on April 20, 2013 in Penrith, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Image: Kristian Woolf experienced the passion of Tonga's players and fans in his first match with the squad in 2013

Another person who has been a key component of Tonga's progress from when Woolf was first involved is joint-captain Jason Taumalolo, who will lead the team out when they take on Papua New Guinea in their opening World Cup Group D match in St Helens on Tuesday night.

Although he was born in New Zealand and won 10 Test caps for the Kiwis between 2014 and 2017, back row Taumalolo has now returned to represent his Tongan ancestry alongside the other heritage players and those born on the island.

The 29-year-old was part of the team which came within an Elliott Whitehead tackle of upsetting England in the semi-finals of the last World Cup five years ago, but this time around they are viewed as genuine contenders rather than a surprise package.

Lifting the Paul Barriere Trophy at Old Trafford on November 19 would be a momentous sporting success for the Pacific Islanders, but it would also have extra significance for those back home given the nation suffered devastation in January following a volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Straight away, I could just sense that real desire, passion and want to represent Tonga, and that real pride all the players had in just being Tongan first and foremost, and having the ability to represent Tonga.
Tonga head coach Kristian Woolf

"I'm pretty sure it [winning the World Cup] would be right up there, but I can only dream at this point," Taumalolo told Sky Sports News.

"If we did win the World Cup, it would mean a lot not just for us but everyone back home, especially after going through earthquakes and the volcano.

"There are a lot of people who are going through a lot of adversity right now and they always turn on the TV to get every moment to watch their fellow countrymen go out there and do them proud."

Woolf knows first-hand the high regard the Tonga team are held in back home, not only for their performances on the field but how they conduct themselves off the pitch as well.

Jason Taumalolo. International Rugby League match between Australia and Tonga, Eden Park, Auckland on Saturday 02 November 2019. Copyright Image: Renee McKay /
Image: Jason Taumalolo is dreaming of leading Tonga to World Cup glory

Not only that, but he has also witnessed just how much those of Tongan heritage around the world have taken them to heart as well.

"That's something this group has done so well for so long," Woolf said. "The way they play, the way they carry themselves as men and represent Tonga, the sacrifices they made, I know the people in Tonga are really proud.

"It's not just the people in Tonga, it's the diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and America. We had a great welcome in London with the High Commissioner and a great number of people who'd travelled from all over England and Wales to come and show how much this team means to them.

"We know that's there, we know what Tonga has been through this year, and all of the families and everyone associated with Tonga feels that."

This year's World Cup marks the first time Woolf has been able to work with the team in person since that 2019 victory over Australia due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and his club commitments with St Helens keeping him away from this year's mid-season international against New Zealand.

The Australian brought his three-year tenure with Saints to a conclusion by guiding them to an unprecedented fourth-straight Betfred Super League Grand Final success last month and while he savoured those moments, he is just as delighted to be back involved with Tonga as they seek to make history as well.

"I knew I'd miss being around the group, but it's just different," Woolf said. "I can't give you all the reasons why it's different because it's hard to explain, but I loved being with the Saints players and I love being with this group as well because of the difference.

"Just being back on the bus and listening to the different type of music, seeing the players and their faces when they walked into the hotel and that kind of thing made me realise how much I'd missed them over the last three years."

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