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Nuku’alofa – April 22, 2021: 4.15pm (Nuku’alofa Times/RNZ): The Tonga National Rugby League is no longer the recognised rugby league body in Tonga.

And a new governing body should be in place within six weeks.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) this week dismissed the Tonga National Rugby League’s (TNRL) appeal against its expulsion from the International Rugby League in March last year, after a long-running battle over governance, money and a threatened player boycott.

IRL Secretary General Danny Kazandjian was pleased with the decision but saddened it had got to this point.

International Rugby League Global Operations Manager, Danny Kazandjian. Photo: IRL

“It was completely unnecessary that it had to go to court,” he said.

“…the factual record shows unequivocally that, at every stage of this disagreement or dispute, we held out olive branches to the former Tongan Rugby League organisation (TNRL), attempting to work collaboratively with them and unfortunately at every stage the record is clear that they rejected those overtures.”

A panel of three arbitrators, from the United States of America, Australia and Canada, concluded the expulsion was justified after the “TNRL’s refusal to cooperate with or to participate in the IRL’s investigation and consultation processes”.

The panel said the TNRL did not comply with its membership duties and failed “to consider or adopt any of the good governance recommendations made to it”.

Danny Kazandjian said the situation in Tonga was “unique” and different to other instances of player boycotts in Lebanon and Fiji because there was a formal complaint issued by another IRL member.

“The difference with the Tongan case is there was a formal complaint that was issued by one of our members (the Rugby Football League) and when that happens we are constitutionally obliged to process the complaint.

“…the circumstances that led to TNRL’s suspension in September 2019 were numerous but the record shows that we attempted to cooperate and collaborate with them to prevent a suspension from occuring but they, as they did at every stage after that, took an adversarial position.”

The Asia-Pacific Rugby League Confederation last year endorsed the bid by a rival body, Tonga Ma’a Tonga Rugby League (TMTRL), for full IRL membership, which has the support of the current Tongan players and coach.

If TMTRL still had the support of the regional confederation, it could be confirmed as the new governing body in Tonga by early June, Kazandjian said.

“The process is that the regional confederation, in this case Asia Pacific Rugby League, their board would recommend a member for IRL, then our Board would assess that application and recommendation. If it found favour with it it would then pass it on to the general assembly and the full members would vote on it.”

Members would then have four weeks to respond to the written resolution, with a majority support required to omit a new member.

“The constitutional process itself would probably take about six weeks if it started today. APRL’s got a Board meeting on Friday, IRL’s got a Board meeting on the 29th of April, so we expect this matter to be discussed at both of those meetings.

“APRL had previously recommended TMTRL as a member…now it’s up to APRL to consider whether they want to re-recommend that application to IRL.”

TMTRL Chairman Semisi Sika was President of the Tonga National Rugby League when the Board was dissolved by a court order in 2016 for “financial mismanagement”.

Semisi Sika. Photo: AFP

Kazandjian said the IRL already has ethics rules to restrict who can become become an Officer, and it was up to TMTRL to elect its own representatives.

“The President of TNRL was a non-executive position and in fact when the Board previous to the Board that was led by Mr Koloamatangi was in place…Mr Sika was not removed from the Presidency by the Tongan courts so we don’t really make any comment on his ceremonial position. It’s up to the Tongan rugby league community to determine who their leaders are and he’s been elected as the independant chairman so that’s up to them.”

The IRL has recently said it will now work with the local rugby league community to move the game forward.

“The expectations of the Tongan people are, naturally, very high and we want to work with the clubs, with the government, with the national team to ensure that we can put this unfortunate and unnecessary episode behind us and move forward towards a World Cup that is bearing down on us very quickly.”

The Tongan national team has been “hamstrung” by the ongoing governance dispute, Kazandjian said, and the hope is now all energy can be put towards preparing for the World Cup later this year.

“This result with CAS now clears the runway, as it were, for everybody who has got Tonga’s best interests at heart with the World Cup in the short term at least, to work together to ensure that the team is as prepared as possible…there’s been a great outpouring of belief that this matter is over from that group of people so they can all move forward.”

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