Woolf still hoping to coach Tonga in World Cup

St Helens coach Kristian Woolf, who signed an extended contract with the club last week, is still hoping that he will be able to coach Tonga in this autumn’s World Cup, despite the Australians and New Zealanders having pulled out of the tournament.

Woolf, who signed a new contract with St Helens last week for the 2022 season, is still unsure whether the tournament will now happen, but he has little doubt that the members of his Tongan squad are united in a desire to take on the rest of the world.

“I’ve had really regular contact with large number of the Tongan group,” says Woolf.

“Not every player, but certainly the leaders and the guys that have been around for a long period of time and really drive the Tongan group. I’ve been in regular contact with them, and the overwhelming feeling from our group is that they’re really hopeful that the World Cup goes ahead.

“There’s a lot of disappointment that Australia and New Zealand won’t be a part of that. That disappointment 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 they’re a really close group who enjoy each other’s company and going into camp together – and keep that momentum going to prove we belong in that top echelon, that’s where that disappointment stems from.

“Everyone is in a difficult position at the moment and I’m really not sure what’s going to happen. The overwhelming feeling from the Tongan players is we’re very, very hopeful it goes ahead. But at the same time, 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 what it is going to look like from here if it goes ahead.”

And Woolf admits that if the tournament does go ahead, then player welfare will be a vital consideration.

“Player welfare has been a big part of the conversations that we’ve had.

“The information that I’ve been given is around travel, bubble lifestyles in hotels and around being able to actually enjoy the experience of coming to England. What are players going to be allowed to do?

“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 of a World Cup and what makes players want to be involved in it. There are certainly lots of questions around those kinds of things, and some I’ve been able to give them some answers on.

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

“But I can understand, if I’m sitting in club land in Australia, that it’s a very different climate there in terms of Covid, and they’re at a very different stage. I can certainly understand their concerns, where they come from when they talk about player welfare and essentially looking after their biggest assets. That’s all coaches and clubs want to do, and their hesitation is certainly something I can understand. I don’t see it as a selfish point of view, that’s for sure – clubs, coaches and staff want to make sure they’re putting their biggest assets, their players, not at any risk and they’re looking after them as best they can. I certainly think that’s what behind it at the moment.”

But Woolf admits that the NRL clubs will play a vital role in deciding whether Tonga can participate in the tournament.

“If the NRL clubs decide they won’t release players then that makes everything very difficult,” he admits.

“We’re in a really difficult position right now but there are two things I hope we don’t see.

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

“And I really hope we don’t go ahead, and don’t have a World Cup where it’s supposed to be with your elite players. Whichever teams are participating, I really hope we have their 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 all for us all cracking on and doing that.”

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