The gulf in international rugby league won’t widen despite Wayne Bennett bypassing Papua New Guinea to coach England, Tonga mentor Kristian Woolf says.
Probably because it is already wide enough.
Woolf applauded Bennett’s two-year deal as England coach but admitted it would have been an “immense help” to the profile of Pacific Island nations if the master mentor had taken up the PNG reins.
However, Woolf conceded it would take more than Bennett’s Midas touch to bridge the gap between the big three – Australia, New Zealand and England – and developing nations.
“I don’t think the gulf will get wider – it is already pretty wide,” Woolf told AAP.
“Wayne Bennett coaching a Pacific Island nation would be an immense help – it would be outstanding.
“But there are other things that developing nations need help with rather than the coaching staff.
“More regular games and rules around eligibility, funding – those are the pressing issues for Tonga.
“But I believe it is a gap that can be closed pretty quickly with a bit of tinkering.”
Kangaroos veteran Sam Thaiday planted the seed this week when he admitted he would rather see Bennett coach a Pacific Island nation after he had been linked to the PNG role before confirming his England gig.
Thaiday believed the move would raise the profile of not only the second-tier nation but the international game itself.
Woolf agreed, but said tweaking eligibility rules was a higher priority for Tonga.
Woolf will be without two of his standouts – the Sydney Roosters’ Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Warriors utility Tui Lolohea – for May’s Pacific Test at Parramatta after the pair had played in New Zealand’s 2015 England tour.
Under current rules, the pair won’t be able to play for Tonga again until after the 2017 World Cup – even if they are not selected for New Zealand during that period.
Woolf reckoned second-tier nations would only start bridging the gap if the rules were more flexible.
He said, ideally, if players from second-tier nations weren’t picked for Australia or New Zealand, they should be allowed to play for their country of heritage.
“A good example is Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Tui Lolohea who have been outstanding for us,” Woolf said.
“But they got a chance to play for NZ.
“I don’t hold it against them but, the way the rules stand, they can’t play for Tonga again for the next two years.
“Now if they are not picked for New Zealand, they are not playing international footy which is where I think the problem is.
“That’s where the gap does get bigger.”
As a result, Woolf will field a “new look” Tonga team at the Pacific Island double-header at Parramatta on May 7 which will also feature Samoa, Fiji and PNG.