Tonga eye new fan base for 2021 Rugby League World Cup

Tonga are looking to forward to a new home away from home at next year's Rugby League World Cup in England.

The kingdom captured the attention of the sporting world in 2017 when they upset New Zealand in pool play and went within a whisker of reaching the grand final.

The draw for the 2021 World Cup was released on Tuesday with Tonga to play their opening two matches against Papua New Guinea and Wales in St Helens before rounding out pool play against the Cook Islands in Middlesborough.

"I think we're in a tough little pool actually," acknowledged head coach Kristian Woolf, who's been in the top job since 2014.

"The Cook Islands are going to come up with a good side. PNG have been really regular strong competitors at the World Cup over a number of years now and they're certainly getting stronger and stronger on the international scene.

"Wales are a little bit of an unknown but if you look at the past couple of World Cups they've been quite competitive as well and being in the conditions over brings them to the fore a little bit."

Woolf is also in charge of Super League champions St Helens and is backing the Saints fans to embrace another team in red and white.

"I've got no doubt that we're going to get plenty of fans come over from New Zealand, Australia and Tonga but I have also no doubt that the St Helens fans will get behind the Tongan team as well and make it a real fortress like it has been in New Zealand," he said.

The Australian coach was a part of the Mate Ma'a Tonga management when the World Cup was last held in the UK seven years ago and was hoping for a smoother ride this time around.

"Having myself over here and being in the thick of things here at St Helens will certainly ease some of those difficulties for the team next year," he said.

"To be able to be at the place where I am there's some real obvious advantages there for us, not just on the field but also in terms of the organisation and just knowing where everything is and how it all works and those kinds of things."

Tonga went into the 2017 World Cup ranked 11th in the world but shot up to their current position of fourth following a fairy-tale run to the semi-finals.

"2017 we obviously knew we had plenty of potential and we had a real desire to show that we could compete against the big nations but there was still that lingering question as to whether you actually can," Woolf explained.

He said Tonga will go into next year's tournament with added confidence after historic victories over Great Britain and Australia late last year.

"We've gone on and proven that a couple of times since and had some really big occasions," he said.

"So it does change the mindset and it certainly means that in terms of the next World Cup we're going in with a real confidence knowing that we can do that and we can compete. We certainly go into the World Cup thinking that we're a real chance of winning it."

Toa Samoa will take on hosts England in the opening match of the Men's World Cup on 23 October at St James' Park in Newcastle.

The 2017 quarter finalists will also face Greece in Doncaster and France in Warrington in their remaining matches in Group A.

Fiji face a daunting start against defending champions Australia in Group B, who have beaten them in three consecutive World Cup semi finals.

The Bati will follow that match in Hull with back to back games in Newcastle against Italy and Scotland, while the PNG Kumuls will complete the group phase against the Cook Islands and Wales in Warrington and Doncaster.

The 2021 World Cup also marks the first time the men's, women's and wheelchair tournaments take place together.

England and Brazil will get the women's tournament underway on 9 November before Papua New Guinea face Canada in the second match of a double header.

The PNG Orchids will also face Canada and England in Group A, while the Cook Islands women face reigning champions Australia in their opening game before taking on New Zealand and France.