Sacked MMT coach told players to sign boycott statements

Documents obtained by First Up show the sacked coach of Tonga's National Rugby League team asked his players to sign statements boycotting their national federation - under the notion that he would be reinstated.

There's been public outcry over the past several weeks amid ongoing issues in Tonga's National Rugby League which began in early September with Kristian Woolf's dismissal and last week resulted in the Rugby League International Federation suspending Tonga's membership as it investigates the developing saga.

Tonga's board claims the Rugby League International Federation 'hung them out to dry' and have launched legal action against the suspension.

In a statement to First Up Kristian Woolf, who has since taken up a role as head coach at St Helens in the UK, said the allegations made against him by Tonga's board were inaccurate. He also denied receiving any commission in his six years as the Tongan coach and said he had the full support of both the NRL and the Rugby League International Federation.

But documents received by First Up show that just days after his sacking, Mr Woolf was in correspondence with Tonga's then Acting Prime Minister over a new national rugby league federation called Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League or TMTRL. 

In messages, Mr Woolf told the players that he believed backing the new federation was the only solution because the current board refused to step down.

He also told players to sign statements backing the new TMTRL and boycotting the current TNRL, saying they would be stronger as a group if no one broke the boycott and agreed to play for the TNRL. He told the players that the statements would be sent to the NRL and RLIF and they could then continue focussing on the end of year games.

Last week the Rugby League International Federation released a statement saying it had suspended Tonga's membership after receiving statements from a list of players who said they would not play under Tonga's National Rugby League and a letter from the then Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika.

First Up asked Mr Woolf to confirm whether or not he told players to sign statements boycotting the current Tonga National Rugby League and to back the new federation Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League. We also asked Mr Woolf if he was expecting to be reinstated as coach if the new federation was approved.
He responded that he would always support the players in their actions saying, "They are strong and intelligent young men. They do not need my help to decide what they think is right, and their actions and their statements are their own. 

"I am not involved in the investigation around the TNRL and have no influence in what new governance could be involved - so therefore I would have no influence on any future appointments."

William Edwards, who is the Secretary of Tonga's National Rugby League wrote to the Rugby League International Federation and saying players had told them they wanted to play for Tonga but felt pressured to indicate to the International Federation they would boycott Tonga's current administration.

"When Israel Folau was asking the players to join, their answers to us was - 'Oh we want to play but we're afraid that we're not going to be selected if Kristian Woolf finds out.' said Mr Edwards.  

"They have a loyalty to their country first. They just want to play. We didn't want to harass them at all. They believe that Kristian Woolf said that he's coming back."

Tonga's then Acting Prime Minister Semisi Sika has since been replaced by a new prime minister after a cabinet vote on Monday.

Documents from Tonga's Supreme Court, obtained by First Up, show Semisi Sika was the president of the old National Rugby League board in Tonga but was dismissed by the court last year after it found serious issues of mismanagement and a failure to account for funds.

First Up asked the Rugby League International Federation multiple times whether it was aware of these details but the federation refused to confirm or deny this. 

But the Tongan Rugby League Secretary William Edwards says the federation knew.

"They knew. I sent them the two judgements. When they asked me to respond to [Semisi Sika's] letter that he sent us on the 24th of September, I responded by sending over those two court judgements so they were fully aware of it, they just turned a blind eye to it," said Mr Edwards.

He said the Rugby League International Federation's CEO Nigel Wood met with the TNRL on the 16th September but did not give them a chance to dispute any allegations against them.

"We were never afforded any natural justice whatsoever and so when Nigel Wood came here to Tonga he never put any of these allegations to us and asked us to answer or even asked members of our association to come forward and demonstrate to him that the statements that Semisi Sika made were false.

"Basically they were telling us to step aside and let Kristian Woolf come back and effectively find a way forward so that someone takes over us," he said.

First Up asked the Rugby League International Federation multiple times if Mr Edwards' statements were true but the federation would not confirm or deny this and instead repeatedly referred us to its statement last week which did not answer the questions raised either.

But minutes of that meeting between the RLIF's CEO and TNRL were sent to First UP. They were taken by the Rugby League International Federation's General Manager of the Southern Hemisphere, Jeremy Edwards who noted -

"When George Koloamatangi asked what Tonga could do to fix this problem, Jeremy Edwards stated that to get the matter resolved for 2019, the current Tongan rugby league boards needs to voluntary suspend its operation, to allow if necessary the former coach and his staff to deliver the remaining games for the year. The Rugby League International Federation would put in place a suitable neutral administrator temporarily while the issues would be thoroughly investigated." 

The RLIF's minutes also noted, "CEO Nigel Wood told the Tongan Board it would get great credit if it was seen to be taking, selfless positive action to unblock the current impasse situation in the interests of international rugby league."

When Tonga's board declined the RLIF's suggestion, its membership was then suspended.

Mr Edwards says the Federation has hung Tonga's National Rugby League out to dry but they are determined to fight them to the end.

"For me, the way that the RLIF was talking was like 'We need to bring back Woolf, we need to make it a financial success.' So all they were caring about was bums on seats. All they were caring about was the financial dollar," said Mr Edwards.

"None of us get paid here. All of us work voluntarily for Tongan National Rugby League and so, the way that it's just panned out we've dug in and we're going to fight the whole thing right through especially against an international body. Because we can't afford to let them do the same thing to another smaller association ever again.