Oceania Cup prep begins amid Tonga NRL appeal

Organisers of the Oceania Cup rugby league competition are pressing on despite renewed uncertainty over Tonga's international status.

The schedule for the 2020 tournament was released on Wednesday with a Tongan Invitational XIII slated to play New Zealand in June and the Fiji Bati in October in Group A.

Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Cook Islands will also go head-to-head in the Oceania Shield (Group B) as part of three international triple-headers.

Tonga National Rugby League was expelled by the Board of International Rugby League last week but has appealed the ruling and will put their case to the IRL General Membership on 18 March.

Deputy Chair of the Asia Pacific Rugby League Confederation Greg Peters insisted Tonga's expulsion by the governing body was a separate matter and would not affect the Oceania Cup.

"In terms of what we're looking at for our test matches in the middle of the year and later in the year, we will have the top players playing as we did last year in New Zealand," he said.

Peters, who is also CEO of New Zealand Rugby League, said they want to build on from the success of last year's Oceania Cup and continue the growth of the game in the Pacific Islands.

"We want to grow the proposition to the same extent and excitement around the Tongan games we'd like to see around all our Pacific games and really showcase what's so great about rugby league when it's played in front of a packed stadium with really passionate fans."

Tonga was beaten 34-14 by the Kiwis in the opening round of the inaugural Oceania Cup in June but players threatened to boycott the World Cup 9s and end of season tests against Great Britain and Australia after the TNRL sacked head coach Kristian Woolf over disagreements around control and finances.

The players eventually ran out for an invitational side, coached by Woolf, after TNRL was suspended by the IRL and claimed historic wins against Great Britain and world champions Australia in back to back weekends.

The same set-up has been proposed for 2020 by the Asia Pacific Rugby League Confederation, which still lists Tonga as a member on its website.

But the tournament organisers could be forced to pivot once again if Tonga NRL's appeal is successful.