Tonga head coach Kristian Woolf is hoping his side’s three-match Test series in England in the autumn will be the beginning of a new era in international rugby league, with the traditional giants of the game finally starting to open the door to second-tier nations.
Woolf’s side ran England close in an epic semi-final encounter at the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, then reached the quarter-finals of the 2022 event. And now the Mate Ma’a will return to these shores for a trio of fixtures which will see Tonga play a top-level Test series for the very first time.
The former St Helens coach has been a huge advocate for the international game for some time and was a driving force behind the autumn series being confirmed, and he says it’s key that nations of Tonga’s level are given the opportunity to challenge the top-tier countries.
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“I think that’s how we keep building the international game,” he explains. “If you go back to the 2013 World Cup, the reality is that there were only three nations that were truly competitive and could honestly say they had a chance of winning that. By the time we played the 2017 that had grown to four or five, and I think in 2022 we probably had six or seven that were a realistic chance of playing in finals, and that was shown with Samoa making the final.
“That’s what we need as an international game, we need to keep finding ways of different nations being able to fight and get up closer to the level, and particularly countries like us, like Samoa, like Fiji… Papua New Guinea, who are getting closer and closer. Just a little bit more experience, a little bit more exposure and we’re going to continue that upward trajectory of getting closer and closer. We've now got an international game that I think is really exciting and we can be really proud of them, and that's only going to keep getting better.”
Woolf will again be leading a team of great talent, and he sees the three matches against England as an examination of their ability to back up week after week in Test match conditions.
“All international games, and particularly playing high-level games, that's how you get better as a team,” he adds. “Our success in 2017 and our success in 2019 [in beating Australia] is well reported, and how did we get to that point? We got to that point by playing regular Test matches and getting together regularly as a team, and you start to build a culture, an expectation of each other and an understanding of each other, and through performing you get to learn how to play at that level and what's required.
“It’s a little bit different to club football. NRL and Super League football is extremely high level, but international is all the best players and it’s a little bit different in how it’s played, it’s a little bit different in how it’s refereed, and you only get better by playing.
“You get to improve, you get to spend a bit of time together as a group, we get to understand each other as a group and how to get the best out of each other and what players need and, yeah, that knowledge that we get from spending that time together, that’s going to be really beneficial for the World Cup which is only two years after that. We’ll certainly have some games in ‘24 as well which will build on what we get from this year. I think also dealing with the travel, dealing with being away from home and the different weather conditions, the fact it's a bit cooler… all the things that come with playing on that side of the world, you get better at that through experience as well. So I see this tour as really beneficial for the World Cup in 2025.”
The series between England and Tonga begin on Sunday, October 22 at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium before the two sides head to Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium six days later. The third and final Test is at Headingley Stadium in Leeds on Saturday, November 4.
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