How Andrew Fifita helped take down Tonga's rugby league board

·4-min read

NRL star Andrew Fifita has explained the role he played in Tonga's expulsion from the International Rugby League.

The Pacific Island nation's governing body has one week to appeal its expulsion from the IRL.

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After months of dispute between Tongan players, coaches and the board over finances and resources, the IRL has confirmed it voted at a board meeting this week to expel the TNRL as issues remain unresolved.

"The directors carefully considered the position of Tonga National Rugby League (TNRL), which has been suspended since October 2019, in the light of a wide-ranging consultation with stakeholders in the Tongan game," an IRL statement released on Monday said.

"After that meeting, the board wrote to TNRL, advising them of the resolution passed at that meeting, which is to expel TNRL from the membership.

"There is a process within the IRL constitution for dealing with membership issues, which IRL is following.

"TNRL has one week to appeal the board's decision. Should it choose to do so, the matter will be decided by the members in general meeting."

The TNRL has been suspended since October last year, with Tongan players forming an 'Invitational XIII' for the World Cup Nines and end-of-season Tests.

Pictured here, Tongan players celebrate after beating Australia in a 2019 rugby league Test match.
Tongan players celebrate their momentous victory over Australia in a 2019 rugby league Test match. Pic: Getty

Stars including Sharks forward Fifita and Tonga captain Jason Taumalolo threatened to boycott the matches until the alternative invitational side was formed separate from the TNRL.

They demanded sacked coach Kristian Woolf to be reinstated and board members of the TNRL stand down, before forming the invitational team to represent the island nation.

Without TNRL, Tonga went on to further establish themselves as a powerhouse of international rugby league with historic victories over Australia and Great Britain in October.

Fifita says it was when he returned to Tonga for a family funeral that he began to explore allegations the country's rugby league board had misappropriated funds given to them by the players themselves.

‘I took offence because that’s our money’

“God rest my pop’s soul, I went over [to Tonga] for his funeral,” Fifita told the Halfcast Podcast.

“When I came back I had an extra day on the island, and I sat down with every club team and asked them where’s this money going to?

“They didn’t know. And I just put it straight to them, I took offence because that’s our money … it’s going to help us get to the next World Cup.

“I had to get across and preach and say what’s going on with this.

“I think when all the coaching staff and that left that’s where it all went haywire.”

Fifita claims the board spent the money from players on lavish trips and even funded the country's rugby sevens team.

Seen here, Andrew Fifita in action for Tonga's rugby league team.
Andrew Fifita says he was alarmed to learn of claims Tonga's board was misappropriating funds. Pic: Getty

"There was money taken from the account, when we found out what it was for … nobody takes $40,000 to $50,000 out for a penthouse, extra tickets … you’re meant to give back to all the grassroots!

“I read all the documents, the entire Nines team got showed the documents.

“And we were like, where’s all this money keep transferring to?

“We paid for the Hong Kong [Tonga] sevens team! $80,000 to send the team to Hong Kong, and that’s no disrespect to them, but that’s meant to be for us!

“The worst thing was that they sacked our coach, training staff, physio, everyone who was a part of that 2017 team who actually got us on the rise.”

The ongoing dispute reached the highest powers in Tonga in September, with then Prime Minister Simisi Sika writing a letter to the RLIF saying the TNRL had lost the trust and support of local clubs and Tongan players, and urging them to recognise a new governing body.

Local clubs then registered a new federation to represent their interests, Tonga Ma'a Tonga Rugby League.

However, court action prevented the body from being involved in the end-of-season Tests.

Following their historic victories in October, players reiterated they would continue to refuse to play for the TNRL and called for governance overhaul.

"We will not reconcile nor play under the current board members," Taumalolo said.

"The attempts to publicly discredit the players and the staff of the group that represented the Tonga Invitational XIII means that is out of the question."

With AAP