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Tonga to unleash Hopoate, Jennings and Fifita

Canterbury fullback Will Hopoate is set to join Michael Jennings and Andrew Fifita in a star-studded Tonga side for next week’s Pacific Test in a move which demonstrates the club’s support for international football.

The Bulldogs have been subjected to heavy criticism for announcing their players would not be available for the May 7 City-Country match at Mudgee but that is due to scheduling as they play North Queensland just four days later.

If NSW coach Laurie Daley had advised that he wanted any specific Canterbury players to play City-Country with a view to assessing them for State of Origin selection, the Bulldogs would have allowed them to do so.

However, under NRL rules players are entitled to a minimum five-day turn around between games and Canterbury has no issue releasing their stars to play for Australia, New Zealand, England, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga and Papua New Guinea.

Among them will be Hopoate, who will be named at fullback for Tonga’s clash with Fiji at Campelltown Stadium on May 6, provided he makes a successful comeback from a fractured eye-socket against Canberra on Saturday.

“The Bulldogs support international football and any of our players who are selected to play for their countries in a recognised test match will get that opportunity, subject to them being fit, Canterbury chief executive Ralene Castle said.

Prop David Klemmer has been selected for Australia in the ANZAC Test against New Zealand on May 5, while James Graham is in the England squad to meet a Samoa side featuring Sam Kasiano at Campbelltown Stadium the following night.

Tonga coach Kristian Woolf confirmed Hopoate, Jennings and Fifita were expected to play against Fiji in an indication of how strong the Mate Ma’a side will be at this year’s Rugby League World Cup.

“The whole representative issue is a tough one for all of us as coaches because you are sending off your best talent or your best players to play elsewhere so it is great that a guy like Will has been given that grace,” Woolf said. “He will be outstanding for us.”

It will be the first time that Hopoate has played for Tonga and Woolf confirmed that he would be joined by Jennings and Fifita, who were both members of Australia’s World Cup winning squad in 2013.

Jennings has previously played for Tonga at the 2008 World Cup, while Fifita last pulled on a Mate Ma’a jersey in 2010.

“This is the first time that every player we are discussing is actually in an NRL system,” Woolf said. “I think in every case they have played some NRL and some have played plenty, which is good.

“It is certainly going to be the most talented footy side we have put together but we also need to make sure we come together as a group and realise that potential.”

Former Kangaroos winger Daniel Tupou is also set to return to the Tonga side, while the new international eligibility rules will allow Woolf to pick Warriors centre Solomona Kata and utility Tuimoala Lolahea, who have both played for the Kiwis.

“We are not in a position to pay players so you only have to look at the fact that some of those names are putting their hand up to play to see how much passion they have for Tonga,” Woolf said.

Under the new international eligibility rules introduced this year, Fifita, Jennings, Hopoate and Tupou are able to play for Tonga in the Pacific Test without jeapordising their NSW Origin prospects.

The change ensures the Pacific nations can now field their strongest possible line-ups, whereas Tonga has been without the likes of Feliti Mateo and Fuifui Moimoi at previous World Cups as they had to choose between the Mata Ma’a and trying to make the Kangaroos or Kiwis.

“Some of those players have played a game for Tonga previously and then they have played for New Zealand or Australia so under the old rules they would have been watching the World Cup or watching this game next weekend,” Woolf said.

“I think the rules changes are really smart because eligibility isn’t a black and white issue for some of these guys.

“They have got a real connection to more than one nations so it is good that the rules now allow that bit of flexibility because we want the best players playing.”

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