Tonga’s historic defeat of Australia has provided a shot in arm to World Cup organisers as they prepare to announce details of the draw for the 2021 tournament that will include the island kingdom heading its own pool.
With Tonga now having toppled New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia in the past two years, the game finally has four nations genuinely capable of winning the World Cup.
The Kiwis revived interest in international rugby league when they ended 27 years of unbroken Australian domination in a Test series or tournament by beating the Kangaroos in the 2005 Tri-Nations final.
However, what Tonga have achieved since Jason Taumalolo led a defection of star players from New Zealand and Australia at the 2017 World Cup has taken the international game to the next level.
Taumalolo and his teammates even claimed Tonga was the world No.1 after becoming the first tier-two nation to beat the Kangaroos, and it is hard to argue.
Not only has the Pacific nation beaten Australia and Great Britain in consecutive weeks, but the nature of the 16-12 win at Eden Park on Saturday night suggested it was a feat the Tongans could repeat in the World Cup final.
The Kangaroos were at full strength, with the exception of injured Sydney Roosters five-eighth Luke Keary and Manly fullback Tom Trbojevic, but they could not gain any momentum against Tonga’s relentless pack.
It’s not that Australia played poorly or took Tonga lightly either, with Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga having ensured there is a pride in the green and gold jersey that may not have been as high when the Kiwis won in 2005.
For the first time in World Cup history, organisers of the 2021 tournament in England are able to conduct a draw with four pools headed by Australia, England, New Zealand and Tonga.
Previous World Cups have employed a "super pool" system, with three teams from two pools at the 2013 and 2017 tournament advancing to the quarter-finals and one team from each of the other two pools.
In 2021, each pool will comprise four teams and the draw will be made on November 27 after qualifying matches to decide the final two nations in coming weeks.
Serbia host Greece in Belgrade on November 9 and USA meet Cook Islands in Jacksonville on November 16, with the winners securing places at RLWC2021.
Teams from four pots – based on the IRL world rankings – will be randomly allocated to each pool. The four pots are:
- Pot 1: Australia, England, New Zealand, Tonga;
- Pot 2: Fiji, Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Samoa;
- Pot 3: France, Jamaica, Scotland, Wales, and;
- Pot 4: Italy, Ireland, Greece or Serbia, Cook Islands or USA.
The IRL is also due to announce details of the 2020 international calendar, with Tonga and New Zealand expected to play the opening round of the Oceania Cup during the NRL’s stand-alone representative weekend.
Fiji’s upset of Samoa on Saturday has all but guaranteed the Bati’s promotion to the Oceania Cup Pool A with Tonga and New Zealand in 2020.
The Bati beat the Kiwis in the quarter-final of the 2017 World Cup and will be no pushovers but officials have expressed concern about Samoa and France, who were thrashed by the Junior Kangaroos - or Australia A - in Wollongong two weeks ago.
It is likely Samoa will be offered more Tests in 2020.
Not only do Tonga have a team capable of beating any nation but they have young players coming through such as Broncos rookie Tesi Niu, who impressed on debut against Great Britain.
Veterans such as Konrad Hurrell, Tui Lolohea and Ben Murdoch-Masilla, who play in the Super League, typified the passion the Tongans have for their jersey with career-best performances against the Kangaroos.
The Tongan team play for their families and the pride of the island nation – not money - with many of the squad having turned their back on the opportunity to earn bigger pay days with Australia or New Zealand.
The success of the team since the 2017 World Cup has resulted in a rise in the number of clubs in Tonga and the establishment of the Jason Taumalolo Cup but internal politics almost derailed that momentum.
With the country’s sports minister and parliamentary speaker in attendance at Saturday night’s match in Auckland, coach Kristian Woolf said a resolution to the off-field dispute with the Tonga National Rugby League was now needed.
"There's been a lot of blokes who call themselves community leaders calling for boycotts and calling for splits in the community. They're not leaders," Woolf said.
"The blokes who actually are leaders are the blokes like Jason [Taumalolo], Siosiua [Taukeiaho] and those kinds of guys who unite the Tongan community. And what they did showed they're leaders in their actions.
"When we get the right governance in Tonga, we've shown what we're capable of. I'm hopeful that's what happens going forward after a couple of tough months."