UNLIKE when he departed these shores in 2022 as a three-in-a-row champion, Kristian Woolf heads back home this week with a vanquished team after his Tonga side were whitewashed 3-0 by England.

Despite that bitter disappointment, Woolf believes it was still right for his side to take on this challenge 12,000 miles away and out of their comfort zone rather than play in the Pacific Championship against the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Samoa closer to home.

And aside from aiding the development of the younger members of the Tongan team, he says another big factor was to help the international game – providing the opposition for England’s first test series since they faced the Kiwis in 2018.

Woolf said: “We wanted the challenge – the easy option would have been to stay at home and play in the Pacific Championship.

“We put our necks out to come over here because we knew it would be good for us in terms of the challenge and the number of young blokes we have in the team that are only going to grow from this experience.

“It was something we found exciting.

“We also had in the back of our mind we wanted to help international footy and the English game as well.

“It needs a bit of help at the moment – everyone can see that and we wanted to make sure we played our part.

“What we always do is consult the players and they were happy to go out either way – but when we put the reasons to come out to England they were right on board.”

Woolf highlighted that six members of the squad were 21 or under – with eight players making their test debuts and that will augur well for the Tongan team as it evolves ahead of the next World Cup.

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The third test defeat represented the last international games for Saints pair Konrad Hurrell and Will Hopoate – in the latter’s case his final ever game as he has now announced his retirement.

Woolf praised the contribution of both, having watched them both develop over the past 10 years.

“That was Koni and Will’s last games for Tonga and it has been great to see them grow,” he said.

“Just being able to see them grow – Koni from 2013 was a young man straight out of Tonga and how far he has come with what he does off the field with his confidence, the way he holds the room and interacts with the group, to the way he has developed on the field has been great to watch.

“That is something I have been really proud of.

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“Will has always had an older head on such younger shoulders and being such a mature young man and he has really grown – and the influence he has had on this group has really grown as well.

“We would have loved to have seen them off with a win, but it has been great to give them an opportunity to play in a historical sort of game and I am very proud of both men.”