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.”
It’s been an arduous summer in which the very future of the club was threatened – but you can’t prevent Abu Dhabi Saracens director of rugby Stephen Hamilton from being positive about the future.
After all, when Hamilton arrived at the club in a dual player and youth coach role three summers ago, Little Ruckers, the club’s brand new youth development programme, started with just three junior members.
Numbers today stand at a healthy 150, with Hamilton hopeful teams from every age group from under-6 to under-14 will represent the club in 2017/18 when the youth rugby season kicks off at the end of this month.
“We’re up to 150 kids now across the whole club,” beamed Hamilton.
“There’s a long way to go but we’re pushing forward. The figure when I first started was three kids so the percentage of numbers has definitely been added to.
“The juniors will have teams from U6 to U14s this year. There’s certainly some scope to bolster numbers in some age groups but we’re positive numbers will be filled and we’ll have at least one team per age group when the fixtures start at the end of October.”
There are changes afoot to Sarries’ youth set-up, namely a name change with the news that Zayed Cricket Academy are coming on board to lend a hand.
Despite the growth of the junior set-up in the last three years, the travails of the senior Sarries side have trickled down to have an impact on the kids. Sarries lost their home pitch when Al Ghazal Golf Club closed at the beginning of August, which had an effect on everyone connected with the club.
And Hamilton insists the Saracens ethos will remain at the core of the slightly new path the club’s youth development is taking.
“It’s really promising and positive for the future of the juniors,” added the Englishman.
“As a club we’re under the same financial strain as everyone else and obviously Al Ghazal is now off the cards. But we’ve been able to make an arrangement with the guys at Zayed Cricket Academy.
“They’ll be a partner to the club and the juniors and give them scope to grow and develop, under the cricket club banner as opposed to Saracens.”
Two new pitches are nearing completion at the Academy’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium venue in time for December’s FIFA Club World Cup, which will be home to Sarries’ growing young army.
“The bitter part of it is we’re going to lose the Saracens brand but the brilliant part of it is the kids who are going to lose that brand are going to be able to grow and expand more drastically and at a lot lower cost due to the support of the cricket stadium,” added Hamilton.
“So the structure and shape stays the same. My involvement stays the same but it’s just going to shift name. We’re still to decide what that name and brand will be but it will give us the remit to push on.
“With what the stadium is doing, using the facility as a tool to allow more sports to be played, which is pretty unique to the UAE, we’re really confident it will be a bit of a game-changer for the club and its development.”
It’s been a catch-22 situation for Hamilton who has seen the youth culture at Sarries grow under his leadership, yet the unpredictable climate the game finds itself in across the Emirates has led to the new direction being taken.
“Everything has been really positive over the last two or three seasons,” added Hamilton.
“We’ve got bigger and stronger every year but this year without a shadow of a doubt, the stresses and strains with finances means playing rugby and the kids’ progression has become secondary to can you actually afford to run the club?
“It means the cricket stadium takes on a few more responsibilities and it frees me up too. I can be there as a coach and volunteer and support the club.
“The club can become a committee-based club run by parents and the management and everything is focused on the kids. It will change my dynamic but I’m still there to support, I’m just not so integral behind the scenes.
“It’s just an uncoupling to allow the juniors to function as their own being to develop. The cricket stadium also have links to UAE Touch who have their own coaches too, but it is still a parent run club, they’ll be looking for support at various age groups where required.
“And parents were keen to keep the Saracens ethos and the principles we’ve put in place. Saracens are our core values and backbone and that desire to compete and be successful is the same, it will just be re-branded slightly.”
Two teams who will consider themselves among the favourites for the UAE Conference title glory this season clash in the capital on Friday as Abu Dhabi Harlequins 2nds welcome Dubai Exiles 2nds to Zayed Sports City.
Quins won an epic Conference Top 6 final in April – requiring extra time to beat Al Ain Amblers thanks to a sudden death Kent Watene try – so will be the team everyone is looking to beat this term.
After a promising first half of the season, Exiles fell away in the Top 6, missing out on the final as resurgent Amblers came from almost nowhere, and coach Gareth Venter believes it will be just as ferociously contested in 2017/18.
“I think that the Conference this year is going to be really competitive – there are some really good teams that have top players in all positions,” said the South African.
“We’ve had a good start with a decent pre-season with consistent numbers. The second half against the Knights showed the rugby we want to play. Last week we got stuck in a very physical meeting against the Tigers in what were humid and wet conditions that didn’t allow us to play our patterns.”
Exiles opened the campaign with a convincing 46-7 defeat of Arabian Knights but were edged out 8-7 by Heartbeat Tigers a week ago. And Venter is looking forward to the challenge ahead in Abu Dhabi.
“Quins this week away will be demanding – they are a very good team and will always be challenging for silverware come end of season,” he said.
“We have trained well this week and we are positive we will be able to play the rugby we want. As always we look forward to the challenge and will take it one match at a time.”
Amblers’ director of rugby Rocco De Bruyn is in temporary charge of the team for Friday’s trip to Tigers with head coach Sean Emmett back home in Australia, and he will be looking for more of the same from his side after a spirited 41-29 loss at home to Dubai Hurricanes 2nds last week.
“Although we picked up a couple of injuries in our first game, we still have a competent team that will travel to take on Tigers,” said the South African.
“We are well aware that we are in for another bone crunching outing and that Tigers can never be underestimated. Our first league game vs Canes was hard and we did not perform as well as we wished, but the lads are fostering a very positive attitude and we hope that this will pay off soon.”
Sharjah Wanderers, champions two seasons ago, are back in action after a week’s break and host Dubai Sharks, who have lost both of their games so far.
“We had a great start against Canes two weeks ago, who have stolen the win off us the past two times we faced them,” said chairman Shane Breen.
“It was far from what we’re capable of but it was our first game so there were a lot of positives to take away.
“We had a week off last week so our focus has been on addressing areas of our game that were poor in the Canes game.
“We welcome sharks to Sharjah for our first home game which we’re excited about. Sharks have become a competitive side over the past few years and will be massively disappointed with their result last weekend.
“However, we’re not focusing on anything other than our own systems and performance.”
Over in the Community League, meanwhile, RAK Rugby head to Beaver Nomads after a confidence-boosting opening day win over Abu Dhabi Harlequins 4ths – although the hosts will be hopeful after blowing away Knights 2nds 95-0 on the opening weekend.
It’s been a summer of positive change for the northern outfit, who finally settled on a new name and have also got a new grass pitch as well as a head coach in former Dubai Hurricanes prop and UAE international Craig Chapman.
“RAK are really looking forward to playing the Nomads, as it will be a real test of the work and changes put in over the last few weeks since Craig Chapman became our director of rugby,” said chairman Simon Williams.
“There’s been a massive change to attitude, commitment and discipline under his direction, as well as moving to playing on grass.
“This has led to a number of new players joining, the majority of which have slotted into this weekend’s 22-man squad. You can see the guys working hard to earn a place in the team, it’s genuinely exciting.
“I’m particularly pleased to see the collaboration we have done with Fujairah’s East Coast Bulls pay off with Jaco Diedericks playing his first game for RAK and making it into the first team.
“Nomads are a tough, quality side and the drills and plays we have worked on will be tested to the limit. We do, however, have a strong side and learnt a lot on areas we need to work on following the bonus point win over Abu Dhabi Harlequins last weekend.
“It was the first time the club has ever won on opening game but really we should have doubled that score.”
Amblers 2nds, meanwhile, have seen several of their senior players called up to the first team Conference squad, but De Bruyn is still confident of putting out a competitive side at home to Abu Dhabi Saracens 2nds.
“Luckily we still have enough numbers to take on Saracens,” he said.
“The boys are looking forward to the game, they have been committed to training sessions like we have not seen the last couple of years. This will be a home game due to Al Ghazal’s closure.”
Elsewhere this weekend, the UAE head to Jordan this weekend to take part in the third annual Arab Rugby 7s Championship. The championship will be held at Petra University and features eight Arab nations for the first time – with the UAE competing alongside hosts Jordan, as well as Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine.
Head coach Apollo Perelini has picked a 12-man squad for the tournament, including Hamad Al Shkeli, Mohamed Al Shamsi, Younes Al Blooshi,
Majid Al Balooshi, Mohammad Al Alwi, Juma Al Mheiri, Yousuf Lashkari, Saeed Saad, Adel Mohammed, Ahmed Al Shei, Thani Al Mheiri and Maktoom Al Hajj.
The UAE are in Group B alongside Iraq, Libya and Jordan and face Iraq in the opener on Friday.