Inside the decision to uphold the expulsion of the Tonga National Rugby League

By STEVE MASCORD

A TWO and a quarter hour video conference of nations on Thursday voted 9-5 to uphold the exclusion of the Tongan National Rugby League from the international game – but at home on the island, 21 clubs had already voiced their support for  the IRL’s decision.
rugbyleaguehub.com can reveal the four full members of the international governing body who did not vote on the matter during a meeting on Zoom were France, Jamaica, the Ukraine and Russia.
Votes were returned in secret by midnight UK time, counted by independent returns officers and the TNRL’s expulsion was upheld.
IRL global operations manager Danny Kazandjian tells us: ““When TNRL were elected in Match 2019 under the egis of the Tongan Supreme Court, that court meeting recognised 15 voting members.
“Of those 15, eight seceded and only four of those clubs (who did not) spoke up in support of the TNRL when the expulsion decision was taken.
“In January, 21 clubs responded supporting the recommendation
“In terms of local stake holders, we felt this expulsion clearly met the wishes of the Tongan rugby league community.”
The matter came to a head before last year’s Oceania Cup when a host of big name NRL players, who had turned Tonga into a 2021 World Cup contender, threatened boycotts over dissatisfaction with the Tonga NRL and then over its sacking of popular coach Kristian Woolf, now of St Helens.
When a formal complaint is made, the IRL is constitution-bound to act. That complaint came from Britain’s Rugby Football League.
IRL chief executive Nigel Wood flew to Naku’alofa to investigate and later Australian Gareth Holmes conducted what the IRL was satisfied as being an exhausting inquest into the issues surrounding the game in that country.
In the meantime, an invitational selection became the first new “nation” to beat Australia since France in 1951.
The TNRL, the Tongan Sports Council, players, officials, at least 24 clubs and other stakeholders were interviewed by IRL-appointed investigator (and former Australian team manager) Gareth Holmes.
Holmes’ initial investigation was completed a week before Christmas.
An initial recommendation from the IRL was for the TNRL to be suspended pending governance reform rather than expelled. But the TNRL’s intransigent response is seen as having transformed that conciliatory approach into the eventual expulsion, which then had to be approved by the full member nations.
During Thursday’s conference, legal representatives of the TNRL and the IRL made their submissions before each were questioned by the member nations.
Further legal challenges from TNRL are anticipated, as is a request for a new governing body backed by the majority of clubs applying for recognition.
A picture has emerged of an expat playing group wanting more control – as has happened with many developing rugby league countries – but the domestic administration responding heavy handedly and with diminishing support at home.
Any suggestion of the national team and its staff being in some way autonomous was quickly dismissed by the IRL. A national team has to be administered by a locally domiciled governing body to satisfy myriad legal, governmental, idealogical and even moral requirements.
But just not this locally domiciled governing body.

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