Tonga committed to World Cup but elite players must be involved – Kristian Woolf

St Helens coach Kristian Woolf says his Tonga players remain committed to the 2021 World Cup but says the tournament must include the game’s elite players.

Saturday, 31st July 2021, 12:48 pm
Updated Saturday, 31st July 2021, 12:50 pm
Kristian Woolf

The World Cup is in the balance following the withdrawal of Australia and New Zealand due to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, a decision backed by the 16 NRL clubs who will provide at least half the players.

Woolf, who steered Tonga to the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup and masterminded subsequent wins over Great Britain and Australia, says his players are still keen to come to England but are awaiting further details of bio-security arrangements.

“I’ve had really regular contact with a large number of the Tongan group and the overwhelming feeling is that they’re really hopeful that the World Cup goes ahead,” Woolf said.

“There’s a lot of disappointment that Australia and New Zealand won’t be a part of that which stems from the fact that our last game as a team was the 2019 Oceania Cup when we managed to beat both Great Britain and Australia.

“Not being able to get together as a group and keep that momentum going to prove we belong in that top echelon is where that disappointment comes from.

“Everyone is in a difficult position at the moment and what’s going to happen I’m really not sure.

“Before people can make decisions about what they’re doing there’s more information needed from the NRL and there’s certainly more information needed from the World Cup in terms of if it goes ahead, what is it going to look like?”

Woolf says he does not expect Australia and New Zealand to change their minds about participating and is concerned by the stance taken by the NRL clubs – where the majority of Tonga’s players ply their trade.

“If NRL clubs decide they won’t release players, then that makes everything very difficult,” he said. “There’s two things I hope for.

“I really hope we don’t go ahead and then get cancelled at a later date because players or teams can’t commit.

“And whichever teams are participating, I really hope we have the elite players because that’s what a World Cup is – the best our sport has to offer.

“If Australia and New Zealand don’t want to be a part of that but everyone else does, then at least if we get our best players I’m certainly for us all cracking on and doing that.”

Woolf says his Tonga players have been made aware of the Covid situation in England, where the World Cup is due to kick off on October 23, and that it would curtail much of the enjoyment usually associated with tours.

“That’s been a big part of the conversations that we’ve had,” he said. “They’ve been around travel, bubble lifestyles in hotels and around being able to actually enjoy the experience of coming to England.

“Everybody comes over for the rugby league and that’s first and foremost but being able to have a little bit of a tour and experience a different country and all the things that England has to offer is a big part of the enjoyment factor.

“Our players were quite comfortable with the majority of the standards they would have to live by if they came over here.

“What I do know with this group of men is that they really do want to represent their country.

“If that means making some sacrifice, well they’ve done it all before and no doubt they’ll do it again.”

Woolf, a 46-year-old Australian who is in his second season in Super League and this week signed a new contract to coach Saints in 2022, says he has tried to reassure people back home of the situation in England.

“I have tried to do that to be honest with you,” he said. “I think it’s important.

“I feel that we’re 12 or 18 months ahead of Australia in dealing with Covid, we’re almost at the point where we’re learning to live with it so to speak.

“It’s still extremely disruptive in rugby league, don’t get me wrong, but the country outside of rugby league has started to move on and live with the virus to some extent.

“Australia’s in a very different position and so is New Zealand, where even with what we would consider quite a small number of cases, cities are being locked down and borders are being closed.

“I can sympathise with people in Australia because you get a lot of contradictory information and, when you’re looking from there and the number of cases and comparing it to over here, it would be a scary picture so to speak.”