In a bizarre prelude to the upcoming Rugby League World Cup, New Zealand have been decimated by eight players defecting to Tonga, including one of their biggest stars in Jason Taumalolo.
A Kangaroo has also made the switch, prop Andrew Fifita, as Tonga suddenly shape up as one of the tournament favourites.
What made the change of heart all the more shocking was how Kiwi head coach David Kidwell found out about the decision – on the radio 48 hours before Cowboys second rower Taumalolo was due to be named in the New Zealand World Cup squad.
“I haven’t had a conversation with Jason, a face-to-face or on the phone,” Kidwell admitted.
He was then asked: “Is that the most frustrating thing, that he wasn’t able to look you in the eye?”
“I think that’s the most disappointing thing” replied Kidwell, “I respect his decision but I think a conversation between myself and him was a good thing to do.
“As far as we were concerned Jason was part of our World Cup team and to find out two days out…that’s the disappointing thing about finding out that late.”
New Zealand’s captain Adam Blair was less kind, launching a withering attack on the joint 2016 Dally M medal winner.
“You’ve got to be a man and own up to what you want to do,” he told NewstalkZB. “If you were man enough, you’d make the phone call and tell them.
“He could have told them a couple of weeks ago because I don’t think it was a last-minute decision.
“Obviously this was something he was thinking about doing.”
Blair said he will find it hard to see Taumalolo wearing the famous black jersey again, which incredibly could happen if the 24-year-old switches his allegiance back to New Zealand after the World Cup.
“At this stage, it feels like we’ve been let down a lot,” he said. “So do we let them back in the team?”
“You’re going to have to find some way to be able to trust them again but does that cause issues and problems that we don’t need?”
In addition to Taumalolo, the other Kiwi players to swap to Tonga are: Manu Ma’u, David Fusitu’a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Tui Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Konrad Hurrell and Manu Vatuvei.
It’s another blow to the credibility of the tournament already under attack for its lax eligibility rules.
International rules allow eligible players to switch to a Tier Two or Tier Three country before a tournament if they are not selected by a Tier One nation – Australia, New Zealand and England.
This of course does not include Taumalolo, who New Zealand fully intended to name in their squad.
Players must declare their allegiance before October 13, and can qualify for nations through their parents or grandparents.
So you get a situation where Kangaroo full-back James Tedesco, the NRL’s players’ player of the year last season, switched to Italy after being left out by Australian coach Mal Meninga.
Jarryd Hayne also declared allegiance to Fiji, although he has played 12 Tests for Australia.
But it’s Taumalolo’s defection which has created as much havoc as one of his barnstorming runs.
In the greatest irony, Tonga will meet New Zealand on November 11 in Hamilton, and looking at the respective squads the Pacific Islanders will start favourites. So you have a laughable set of circumstances where Taumalolo runs out to play against the country he represented against Australia in May.
You could never imagine it happening in football or rugby union, and one of the reasons why the Rugby League World Cup will never be considered on that level.
For his part, New Zealand born Taumalolo – who parents are both Tongan – said he just wanted to rugby league become stronger in the Pacific island nation.
“Obviously with the rule changes they applied earlier this year, it gave a platform for us bigger names to represent smaller nations and tier-two nations” he said.
“It was a good opportunity to make them a more competitive country in rugby league.”