Despite another delayed World Cup, England head coach Shaun Wane and Tonga chief Kristian Woolf still believe that international rugby league is in a good place with stark contrast to years gone by.
The two nations will meet at the Totally Wicked Stadium on Sunday for the first of a three-game autumn test series, squaring off on English soil for the first time since 2006 and for just a fourth time ever.
Down under meanwhile, the inaugural Pacific Championships are currently taking place with six nations involved in the men’s sector of that tournament.
Though not officially confirmed yet, Tonga are expected to replace Samoa in next year’s edition of the Southern Hemisphere’s new international competition, with Ben Gardiner’s side making the trip over here to take on Wane’s side.
Added to that, an international calendar running until 2030 was put in place earlier this year, with more certainty than ever before on what the future of the game looks like for most nations.
England & Tonga coaches insist international rugby league is on the up
Speaking earlier this week at the pre-test series press conference, both Wane and Woolf were in agreement when it came to the state of affairs the international game is in.
The England chief said: “It’s so impressive that we have put these games on. We’ve needed an international calendar. You look at the strength of the game moving forward when the international calendar was announced, with this series, Samoa next year and then the World Cup, it just gives us a shot in the arm.
“Super League’s improved this year because of the World Cup last year, even though we fell short in the semi-finals. Everybody deserves a lot of credit for the work that’s gone into getting an international calendar together.”
Former St Helens chief Woolf – who has been in charge of Tonga since 2014 – added: “I think it’s really positive. If I go back to years like 2013/2014, from a Tongan perspective, we had one game a year.
“You never knew then when your next game might come along, and you spent the whole year trying to figure out if you were going to have games at the end of the year, and whether – if you did – they were going to be meaningful.
“Over the course of that period, we’ve got to a point and international footy’s got to a point where it’s more competitive. We don’t just have three nations anymore, we’ve got four, five or six that are really competitive with each other and that’s meant that we’ve been able to put a little bit more of a calendar together.
“You can see what you’ve got here at the moment which is not just our series, but the series that are going on in Australia, and I think that’s what everyone needs.
“Everyone needs meaningful games, everyone needs big games, and we need to see those top five or six nations playing against each other. It’s good to see that is happening.”
Shaun Wane & Kristian Woolf already planning for 2026 with full details of next World Cup still awaited
The main thing hampering the international game at the minute is the inability to organise the next World Cup, pushed back a year to 2026 after initial hosts France withdrew.
The IRL board have recently confirmed further details in relation to the tournament, and confirmed it will now take place in the Southern Hemisphere, though a host nation is still to be confirmed. It’s the second World Cup running that’s been delayed, with the one which took place on these shores last year also pushed back because of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the next global tournament, neither Wane or Woolf are too fazed, and both are just planning around the understanding it’s coming in three years’ time.
Tonga chief Woolf continued: “It doesn’t interfere with our planning to be honest with you. You want to know where it is, and you want a little bit more of a view of what is coming up, but we know it’s going to be in 2026 and we know we’ve got that time to try and get some games in-between to build on where we’re at now and be stronger.
“As I said before, the talent that’s coming through in the NRL of Tongan players is just getting bigger and bigger, and we know that we’ve got some exciting years ahead of us building into that World Cup. Not knowing where it is doesn’t affect the planning, that’s for sure, but it would be nice to know.”
With the same mindset, 59-year-old Wane affirmed: “It doesn’t affect us, we’ve had our office meetings and some sessions together, and we just move forward.
“When I found out about this (test series), we just put together a camp accordingly to suit everybody, so I’m of the opinion that we’ll deal with it when it comes. Whatever it is, we’ll work hard and make sure that the camp’s good.”