WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Australia and New Zealand have been hit by team defections ahead of the Rugby League World Cup as leading players quit the Kangaroos and Kiwis to play for Tonga.
North Queensland star Jason Taumalolo headlines a group of four former Kiwis who have turned their backs on New Zealand while Cronulla prop Andrew Fifita has defected from Australia to Tonga after being named in the Kangaroos World Cup squad earlier this week.
Taumalolo announced his decision Wednesday to make himself unavailable for New Zealand, reportedly because of his anger at Kiwis coach David Kidwell's decision to sack former captain and Melbourne prop Jesse Bromwich and Gold Coast prop Kevin Proctor on disciplinary grounds.
Fifita told Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga on Thursday that he wished to transfer his allegiance to Tonga.
Former Kiwis David Fusitu'a, Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Manu Ma'u have joined Taumalolo in choosing to play for Tonga ahead of New Zealand. The announcement of the Tonga squad Thursday preceded by 15 minutes but also overshadowed the announcement of the Kiwis squad which is substantially depleted by the player exodus.
Kidwell has named five uncapped players in his 24-man squad to compensate the departures of the Tongan group, injuries to Melbourne star Tohu Harris and Kieran Foran and the omission of hooker Isaac Luke on form grounds.
Taumalolo played for Tonga at the 2013 World Cup but has played for New Zealand in an interim. In a statement issued through his manager on Wednesday, Taumalolo said he had made his decision to help a developing league nation.
His snubbing of New Zealand has been linked to Kidwell's hard-line stance on disciplinary action against Bromwich and Proctor. Both players were briefly suspended by their NRL clubs but Kidwell has refused to consider their return to the Kiwis squad, citing a loss of trust.
Taumalolo, who was voted the best player in the NRL last year, said: "I see with the new international rule change an opportunity to represent both Tonga and New Zealand throughout my career."
"I have and will always be proud to wear the Kiwis jersey," he said. "I just feel the World Cup provides developing nations and opportunity to play on the big stage and I would like to help them with their campaign."
Brisbane's Adam Blair, who will lead the Kiwis at the World Cup, called Taumalolo's decision disappointing.
The World Cup will be played in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea beginning Oct. 27 when Australia plays England. New Zealand is due to play Tonga at Hamilton on Nov. 11.
Fifita's departure from the Kangaroos squad, after playing seven tests for Australia, received the blessing of coach Meninga. Penrith forward Reagan Campbell-Gillard has been called into the squad as Fifita's replacement.
"Andrew called me and said he was passionate about playing for Tonga and I respect and support that decision," Meninga said in a statement. "It is obviously a significant boost for Tonga as well as the World Cup and international rugby league in general."
Later Thursday, Brisbane star Darius Boyd was forced to withdraw from the Australia squad with a hamstring injury. He was replaced by Penrith's Josh Mansour, who was forced out of last year's Four Nations tournament with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
New Zealand: Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Gerard Beale, Adam Blair, Kenny Bromwich, Addin Fonua-Blake, Peta Hiku, Shaun Johnson, Thomas Leuliuai, Danny Levi, Isaac Liu, Simon Mannering, Te Maire Martin, Jason Nightingale, Kodi Nikorima, Russell Packer, Jordan Rapana, Brad Takairangi, Joseph Tapine, Martin Taupau, Elijah Taylor, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Dean Whare.
Tonga: Andrew Fifita, Mahe Fonua, David Fusitu'a, Siliva Havilli, Ata Hingano, Will Hopoate, Konrad Hurrell, Michael Jennings, Solomone Kata, Sione Katoa, Samisoni Langi, Tuimoala Lolohea, Sika Manu, Manu Ma'u, Sam Moa, Ben Murdoch Masila, Joe Ofahengaue, Tevita Pangai Jr., Ukuma Ta'ai, Sio Siua Taukieaho, Jason Taumalolo, Peni Terepo, Daniel Tupou, Manu Vatuvei.