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Tonga to carry new name in bid to save Test matches

Sydney Morning Herald logo Sydney Morning Herald 6 days ago Adam Pengilly
William Hopoate, Daniel Tupou, Jason Taumalolo are posing for a picture: Tonga stars Daniel Tupou and Jason Taumalolo at the 2017 World Cup. © NRL Photos Tonga stars Daniel Tupou and Jason Taumalolo at the 2017 World Cup.

Tonga's national team will be rebadged as a Tonga Invitational XIII to help save end-of-season Tests against Great Britain and Australia.

Kristian Woolf is poised to return as head coach of the Pacific nation, which has been engulfed in a tug of war over control of the country's national body amid a push for Israel Folau to return to the 13-player game.

But an impasse is set to be reached as soon as Thursday with the Rugby League International Federation expected to confirm the country's availability for two Tests in New Zealand in coming weeks.

A host of Tonga's biggest stars are expected to be chosen for the matches against the Great Britain Lions in Hamilton and against world champions Australia the following week at Auckland's Eden Park, while Woolf will also take charge of the country's World Cup 9s outfit.

The 9s tournament will be played at Parramatta's Bankwest Stadium next week.

The naming of a Tonga Invitational XIII will help boost ticket sales for the two Tests across the Tasman, which have been slowed by in-fighting between a host of NRL stars and administrators purporting to represent the Tongan National Rugby League.

The TNRL trumpeted former Wallaby Folau, who is embroiled in his own legal fight with Rugby Australia over his sacking for social media use, as making a return to the 13-man game under their governance.

But the country's biggest stars, led by Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita and including Roosters grand final heroes Daniel Tupou and Sio Siua Taukeiaho, said they would boycott playing for Tonga until chairman George Koloamatangi and secretary William Edwards stood aside.

The players wanted an AGM held to elect new office bearers.

But the RLIF, who suspended the TNRL pending an investigation, will be able to ensure the two crucial Tests involving the emerging nation go ahead, the latter against Australia as part of the Oceania Cup.

Samoa will play Fiji on the same night as part of an Eden Park triple-header.

The RLIF said the previous suspension of Tonga's membership under the TNRL had nothing to do with blocking Folau's bid to rejoin rugby league, but rather solving an internal dispute.

Woolf's return to the helm of Tonga will come after the former Knights assistant took control of the last two games of Newcastle's NRL season following Nathan Brown's exit. Woolf will take over English giants St Helens next season.

Meanwhile, Rabbitohs captain Sam Burgess won't be part of the Lions tour after struggling with a shoulder injury in the latter part of the NRL season.

"Sam's had an ongoing problem with his shoulder which everyone will be aware of playing in the NRL and he will miss out," RFL's rugby director Kevin Sinfield said.

"It's probably going to require surgery but again we’re waiting to confirm on that. He's gutted he will miss the opportunity and we are as well."

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