By Ana Tausinga
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – A TNRL meeting of board members and local rugby clubs was held in Nukualofa, 15 May. The meeting was convened for local league club members to consider and support the TNRL’s letter of petition to the government of Tonga.
In attendance were Board members of the TNRL and representatives of local league clubs from the various districts across Tonga.
The TNRL was expelled by the IRL in February, and have appealed their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sports in Switzerland.
According to TNRL Vice Chairman, Petuliki Mafile’o, a total of 15 club members signed the petition at the meeting, while 4 remaining clubs who were not in attendance, are in full support. The remaining clubs will sign the petition before it is presented to the government.
Mafile’o claims “This shows we have the majority of club support in Tonga. Reports from the IRL that we don’t have any support from the local clubs and players are simply false and propaganda used to discredit the TNRL.”
The Vice Chairman said, “It is important for the league to know, these are the well established clubs in Tonga who have been around for a long time, many years, and have given us the best teams for local competition in Tonga.”
New board, same players
On the other hand, the IRL’s Implementation Committee, led by the former Director of Tonga Sports Council, Ikani Taliai, held their general meeting on the same day to select a new board to represent the TMTRL. This new board has the backing of the IRL.
The IRL has stated they will grant the TMTRL membership once their application process is complete.
Sacked TNRL President, Semisi Sika, was elected the new Chair of the TMTRL, while Lord Fakafanua, the Speaker of the House, is the new President. Other members of this board include former players of the Mate Ma’a Tonga team.
Court battle and missing money
The first court case was filed in 2014 against Sika and Moheloa for changing the Constitution to give themselves 4 year term. And, also, failing to account for the money in 2012, 2013.
Judge Cato in 2014 declared the decision to amend the Constitution unlawful.
In 2016 Chief Justice Paulsen declared financial mismanagement in the years 2012 – 2015 under Sika and Moheloa.
Over $60,000 pa’anga of rugby league funds were unaccounted.
In April of 2018, Sika and Moheloa failed to provide financial statements in accordance with the Constitution. This led to another court proceedings against Sika and Moheloa.
On 12 November, 2018, Judge Laki Niu dismissed the Board under Sika and Moheloa for misconduct, and failing to comply with the rules.
At the same time, the Supreme Court ordered a new AGM to select new board members. The Interim board and transitioning was under the direction of former Attorney General Aminiasi Kefu. As a result, George Koloamatangi was elected the new Chair of the TNRL, and William Edwards, Secretary, on 9 March 2019.
Koloamatangi and Edwards in an attempt to clean up the financial mayhem and chaos left behind by the ousted board, soon faced another challenge, Coach Kristian Woolf.
Issues over spending of funds in an off-shore account in Australia, control over governance and coach’s contract, quickly escalated to a public spat – this led to Coach Woolf’s dismissal.
Some of the players, led by Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo, wrote letters of concern to the IRL. They threatened to boycott the game over Woolf’s dismissal.
An audit last year showed the off-shore account used by Coach Woolf and his staff had over $US342,000 in funds spent without any supporting documents.
Back in the game
When Sika was Acting Prime Minister of Tonga in September 2019, he wrote a letter to the IRL stating the government and players had lost their support and confidence in the current TNRL board. Consequently, the TNRL was suspended, and eventually expelled from the IRL.
The main reason given for the expulsion of Tonga by the IRL is that the commercial success of the IRL and its affiliates were in jeopardy. Key players refused to play under the current TNRL board, and the IRL simply did not allow the TNRL a chance to field a team for the Great Britian Lion’s Tour and Ocean Cup 2019.
Tongan rugby players for the Mate Ma’a Tonga made sacrifices to play and represent their country of origin. However, they played under the banner of an Invitational Team, an affiliate of the IRL and their sponsors.
William Edwards, TNRL Secretary, claims, “The IRL did not afford Tonga natural justice, and the governing body of the IRL failed to provide the TNRL with a legal basis for their original suspension.”
Many sports fan are questioning the credibility of the International Rugby League controlling the local governance of Tonga’s rugby league. Will the IRL now control the local league in other countries who have disgruntled players and coaches?
Prime Minister Pohiva revokes Misi Sika’s letter
New elected Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’ionetoa wrote a letter to the IRL in February affirming the Government of Tonga’s support of the TNRL. In the letter, PM Tu’ionetoa stated the following key positions of his government: “Revoke Sika’s letter; acknowledge the TNRL is the legal governing body under Tonga Law for rugby in Tonga and overseas. And, the government, IRL, and TNRL work together to resolve issues by 30 June 2020.”
The TNRL is awaiting their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports.
However, the International Rugby League has ran out of time to file their answer to the CAS, and have requested an extension of time limit. It is not certain at this time whether the TNRL will agree to their request. Under Rule 32 of the Code of Arbitration, once you run out of time, there is no more time.
Is the IRL running out of time to do the right thing?
In conclusion, Tongan youths rely heavily on sports such as rugby as their future lifeline. Many look up to the players with dreams of becoming the next Jason Taumalolo. There needs to be a greater sacrifice other than winning a trophy and earning commercial success. The TNRL has over 30 years of legacy, the Mate Ma’a Tonga spirit and motto is the heart beat of Tonga’s rugby league. This is what makes the MMT fans undeniably, the loudest and proudest in the league.