Tonga Rugby League in chaos over money and power play allegations in Mate Ma'a Tonga

Tonga's Rugby League federation is in chaos following an evolving dispute over money allegations and control of its National team's affairs.

A war of words broke out this week between Mate Ma'a Tonga players and their board following the sacking of coach Kristian Woolf.

The events have sparked outrage in the Tongan community and many of the team's players threatened to boycott the World Cup 9s and end of season tests if Mr Woolf wasn't reinstated. Many of their fans are backing their calls for the Chairman and secretary of the board to step down.

Chairman George Koloamatangi has hit back saying the players are misinformed about the situation and Mr Woolf had to go.

Mr Woolf and his staff were replaced in less than a week by retired Kiwis and Warriors coach, 71 year old Frank Endacott who will be assisted by former New Zealand league players Duane Mann, Manu Vatuvei and Leslie Vainikolo.

But as a First Up investigation reveals, it all comes down to money, a 'he said, she said scenario' over sponsorship commissions and who should control Mate Ma'a Tonga's team accounts.

Mr Koloamatangi, who has been the board chairman of Mate Ma'a Tonga for 6 months says the previous board allowed Mr Woolf to have more control over financial matters than he should have had.

"Part of the failure of the old board, which was dismissed by the court for misconduct, is that it hadn't audited any of their accounts since 2012 so when we were elected to come in, that was part of our job. And taking hold of this account in Australia and getting it audited was one of the things we needed to do," said Mr Koloamatangi.

"The problem with that is we have no receipts and this is why we wanted this account audited."

The Rugby League International Federation has this year decided to withhold its annual funding of $25,000 to the team because the last board had not provided any financial reports in the last two years.

Mr Koloamatangi says coach Kristian Woolf refused to give the board control of the team account in Australia and for that reason his position with the team became untenable.

When we tried to reach out to him he was very reluctant and then he didn't answer back to emails or answer our questions. The Tonga Sports Council tried to reach out to broker a deal but he didn't return our calls. Everyone's tried and it got to the point where we just had to move on," said Mr Koloamatangi.

He also claims Mr Woolf was personally organising sponsorship contracts for the Mate Ma'a Tonga team and taking a commission, which he says the board saw as a conflict of interest. 

"He refused to hand over the management of sponsorship deals to us, and the threat was "If you guys try to make us do this, the players won't play." and that was from him, from the first meeting I had with him. So I reported it back to the board and we disagreed but we kept things moving forward for the team." said Mr Koloamatangi.

Mr Woolf has not responded to First Up's requests for comments on the allegations but former NRL player John Hopoate, who says he is the team's spokesperson, refutes Mr Kolomatangi's claims. He says whilst commission was paid to staff who set up sponsorship deals, none involved Woolf.

"No he was not taking no sponsorship. We had people who did our sponsorship for us. Woolf was not taking any money from sponsorship," said Mr Hopoate

There were people working for us that were getting sponsorship deals for us and they'd worked for us for free for a couple of years and then we were started to get a name and we were getting up there, so we gave them a commission and they deserved it because they worked hard to get us sponsorship.

"These guys [the new board] come in and say "No, we're not going to do that, we're going to take over that" because they want the commission."

First Up revealed in June, when Mate Ma'a Tonga was in New Zealand to play the Kiwis, that the team was in desperate need of sponsorship to continue playing at the Oceania League Cup. 

Melino Maka of the Tongan Advisory Council had been liaising with the board and organising sponsorship for the team and he told the programme whilst the team needed to be in New Zealand for a fortnight in October to prepare for their match against the British Lions, their costs were only being covered for a week.

Mr Koloamatangi says the board and Mr Woolf have been in a dispute over who should organise sponsorship deals for months.

Meanwhile, the RLIF says while the issues are with the Tonga Rugby League board, they are monitoring the situation and are keen for a solution to be found.

In a statement to First Up Jeremy Edwards, the Southern Hemisphere General Manager said while it wouldn't normally involve itself in a domestic situaton the federation would always encourage their member National Federations to adopt appropriate standards of governance and internal control. 

"That is our responsibility and one which we would seek to promote and if necessary regulate. The RLIF will investigate any alleged breaches of RLIF operational rules if they emerge," said Mr Edwards.

The events have sparked outrage among fans, many of whom credit Mr Woolf for the rise of MMT in the past few years. 

In 2017, the 44 year old led the team to the semi-finals of the Rugby League World Cup and that has earnt him backing from players in the team, including top players Andrew Fifita, Will Hopoate and Jason Taumalolo all of whom have threatened to boycott both the World Cup 9s and end of season tests.

But Mr Koloamatangi says the players have been misinformed.

"The players who have been running around doing this, they have no idea. They've been misled of the truth of why Woolf was removed," he said.

"A lot of the players don't know. I spoke to one of the players the other day and he said he was told a different story."

The Board itself has been accused of stealing money from the team's accounts, something chairman Mr Koloamatangi denies. 

He says the board ordered a transfer of funds from the team's Australian account and Mr Woolf had been copied into all the correspondence.

The transfer was to cover the loss in funding this year with the RLIF's decision to withhold its annual funding for the team.

Former NRL player John Hopoate has been with the team since 2008 and says Mr Koloamatangi has not spoken to any of the players.

"The board are full of shit. Everything they say is lies. They just lie and lie to cover another lie. That's all they do," said Mr Hopoate.

"The other board - I don't know what they did in Tonga but they were good because they let us run our own race, even though we still had to ask them to use money. But they let us do what we wanted because we knew how to run a team and how to bring the boys together. And they were good.

"This board, they've come in and they're like "We're the board, you guys answer to us" and they don't even do anything," said Mr Hopoate.

Mr Koloamatangi says Mr Hopoate is not a team spokesperson. He says an audit is currently in process and the board is working to regain control of the team's Australian account.

While Mr Woolf has not responded to any requests for comment despite repeated attempts, many of the teams players are standing by their call to boycott the upcoming games, something the RLIF's Southern Hemisphere manager says would impact the World Cup 9s programme.

"It would be disappointing we remain optimistic that Tonga will fulfil its obligations to fully participate in the programme," said Jeremy Edwards.

"International rugby league has made an enormous amount of progress over the past two years. Much of that progress has been concentrated on giving the Pacific Island Nations a full and vibrant calendar. 

"The RLIF has shown itself to be prepared to construct and promote new competition for the benefit of nations, so obviously we would hope that this is resolved correctly and that we can all focus on and enjoy the action on the pitch."