Jason Taumalolo's motives '100 per cent pure' - Tonga coach
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf admits Jason Taumalolo could have handled his decision to walk away from the Kiwis better, but is adamant his reasons for doing so are genuine.
Taumalolo, widely regarded as the best forward in the game, left the Kiwis' Rugby League World Cup plans in disarray after confirming his switch to Tonga two days before New Zealand coach David Kidwell announced his 24-man squad on Thursday.
Roosters forward Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Eels back-rower Manu Ma'u and Warriors centre David Fusitu'a all followed suit, leaving Kiwis selectors scrambling to fill the squad less than an hour before it was named.
The players have been slammed for the timing of their decisions, with Kidwell revealing Taumalolo has not responded to his numerous attempts to contact him.
While the Cowboys star has said the move is all about giving back to Tonga, Australian media have suggested that he was not happy with the World Cup suspensions handed down to Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor for breaking team protocol at the Anzac test.
However, Woolf, who has had a long association with the 24-year-old, says he was told directly by Taumalolo that was not the case.
"One thing I do know is that Jason's motives are one hundred percent pure," Woolf told Stuff.
"There are no underriding feelings against the coach or how players were treated like that at all. I have spoken to him about that.
"Whether he actually spoke to him (Kidwell) I'm not sure. If that is the case then that is something I think Jason should do and something that he should have handled better.
"Obviously I was involved with all the other conversations with the other guys who made the same decisions, but they rang me to tell me they were playing for Tonga. The next part of the conversation was around making sure they do the right thing and making sure that you notify either New Zealand or Australia and you've spoken to people there."
Woolf and Taumalolo both live in Townsville and their relationship goes back to when the 10-test Kiwi first arrived in North Queensland from Auckland in his teens.
Taumalolo played under Woolf in the Cowboys under-20s and they remained in regular contact.
But Woolf says the perception that he twisted Taumalolo's arm to leave New Zealand could not be further from the truth.
All the players that defected - Andrew Fifita withdrew from the Kangaroos two days after being named in the squad - have played for Tonga previously and Woolf said they had all expressed a desire to return while at their best in recent years.
While Taumalolo signed a 10-year, $10 million deal with the Cowboys earlier this year, the players are giving up a five-figure pay-day to play for Tonga - a fact Woolf believes should not be ignored.
"Jason mentioned to me at one stage that he was certainly thinking about it leading into this World Cup but I get that before every Tongan camp.
"That is why I think it is so brave on Jason's behalf, to be the first and also on the others. The popular decision is to follow the higher profile team and to follow where the finances are. That is what every person has done before them and that is what most people would do. These guys have decided to go the other way and I really think they deserve a lot of applause."
Woolf, who has coached Tonga since 2015, can sympathise with Kidwell.
He would often select a "dream team" in his head prior to test matches only for those plans to go out the window as his best players were snapped up by tier one nations.
"It is interesting now that it has come the other way that it is so controversial and does get so much air time because it has been happening a few years the other way," he said.
"Even Addin Fonua-Blake (New Zealand) and Felise Kaufusi (Australia) haven't had too much air time from the fact that they played for Tonga in May."
He admits player eligibility is a huge grey area but says the new rules that allow players to switch between tier one and two nations is vital for the future of international rugby league.
"Under the old rules none of the players [who played for NZ] would be able to come back and that would make a really depleted Tongan team. Samoa and Fiji would be in a similar position. That is certainly not what anyone wants the World Cup to be and it's not what the World Cup is about."