Kiwis coach David Kidwell blindsided by Jason Taumalolo's Tonga switch
Jason Taumalolo's shock switch to play for Tonga at the World Cup blindsided the Kiwis, with coach David Kidwell revealing the Cowboys star is still yet to give him an explanation.
Kidwell and the New Zealand selectors were left scrambling just hours before their 24-man squad was announced on Thursday as three other players in Kiwis contention - David Fusitu'a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma'u - followed Taumalolo's lead by switching allegiance to Tonga.
The drama was not confined to the Kiwis, though, with prop Andrew Fifita withdrawing from the Kangaroos squad to join the Tongans.
After convenor of selectors Tawera Nikau spoke with the Cowboys wrecking ball after Sunday's grand final, it was assumed Taumalolo would be wearing the balck and white at the World Cup.
But those plans went out the window two days ago when the Cowboys wrecking ball informed the Kiwis via a third party that he would be playing for Tonga.
Despite numerous attempts to contact Taumalolo since that bombshell, Kidwell confirmed Taumalolo had yet to respond to his calls.
"I haven't had a conversation with Jason face-to-face or on the phone," Kidwell said.
"I think that's the most disappointing thing. I respect his decision but I think a conversation between myself would have been a good thing to do.
"It's entirely up to him and we respect that decision. But we've got to focus on the guys that have put their hand up and want to play in the jersey."
Nikau said they had not shut the door on Taumalolo, or the other players, representing the Kiwis again, although that would be assessed after the World Cup.
Both he, Kidwell and NZRL chief executive Alex Hayton all spoke about how the defections ultimately made for a more competitive tournament.
But there was no hiding the disappointment at having their plans thrown into disarray with the opening game against Samoa just three weeks away.
"What's happened has happened. We just need to put all our energy in focusing on what we can do as a group," said captain Adam Blair, who was unable to attend due to family commitment, via telephone link.
Kidwell confirmed they had received indication from Fusitu'a, Ma'u and Taukeiaho over the last week that they could be jumping ship.
Storm back-rower Kenny Bromwich was called up as Taumalolo's replacement, while Elijah Taylor and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves were included after initially being told they had missed out
There are five debutants in the squad, including Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who last weekend helped the Melbourne Storm win the NRL grand final, prop Addin Fonua-Blake from the Manly Sea Eagles, Newcastle hooker Danny Levi, Sydney Roosters forward Isaac Liu and Brad Takairangi, a utility player at Parramatta Eels.
Asked if the squad was finalised an hour before it was named, Nikau gave a big grin.
"We want players who want to play for the black jersey, we want players that are 100 percent committed," he said.
Tohu Harris, Jordan Kahu, Kieran Foran and Ben Matulino were not considered due to injury, while veteran hooker Issac Luke was dropped for form reasons.
But by far the biggest absence was Taumalolo, the NRL's most destructive ball runner.
Reports in Australia claimed Taumalolo's U-turn was in protest over the NZRL's punishment of Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor after the cocaine scandal at this year's Anzac test.
But Kidwell stood firm on the decision to leave the duo out of the World Cup, insisting he has the support of not only the players selected, but Bromwich and Proctor themselves.
"I've gone down to Melbourne and seen Jesse, I've gone to the Gold Coast and met with Kevin and they're doing some great things. They've grown as men but they respect our decision and we've got their full support.
"Everyone's going to have their own opinion but at the end of the day we've made that strong decision for the jersey. We're trying to build a new Kiwis spirit here and we're not going to condone that behaviour. We're moving on to the players that do want to have a strong culture."
Compounding Taumalolo's withdrawal, Kidwell is in the process of revamping the side's style of play after a poor run of results and the 2016 Dally M Medal winner was expected to form a key part in that.
"It won't change our style. There will just be different personnel in there," Kidwell said.
"I've expressed that to everyone in that 24-man squad that we're going to play a different style, a Kiwi style of football for this World Cup."
KIWIS: Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Kenneath Bromwich, Addin Fonua-Blake, Peta Hiku, Shaun Johnson, Thomas Leuluai, Danny Levi, Isaac Liu, Simon Mannering, Te Maire Martin, Jason Nightingale, Kodi Nikorima, Russell Packer, Jordan Rapana, Brad Takairangi, Joseph Tapine, Martin Taupau, Elijah Taylor, Roger Tuivasa Sheck, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare.
TONGA: Andrew Fifita, Mahe Fonua, David Fusitu'a, Siliva Havilli, Ata Hingano, Will Hopoate, Konrad Hurrell, Michael Jennings, Solomone Kata, Sione Katoa, Samisoni Langi, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sika Manu, Manu Ma'u, Sam Moa, Ben Murdoch Masila, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pangai jnr, Ukuma Ta'ai, Sio Siua Taukieaho, Jason Taumalolo, Peni Terepo, Daniel Tupou, Manu Vatuvei.
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