Tonga's royal family is backing the legal bid by Australian National Rugby League stars Fuifui Moimoi and Taniela Tuiaki to represent the Pacific nation in the World Cup, with a company part-owned by Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita covering the costs of the court action.
|Fuifui Moimoi continues his fight to play for Tonga [GALLO/GETTY]
As members of the Tonga squad attended a ceremony in Sydney where King George Tupou V opened a Free Wesleyan Church, Moimoi and Tuiaki were seeking a court hearing to overturn a Rugby League International Federation ruling prohibiting them from playing in the tournament.
Their case will be heard a day before the tournament is set to kick off.
If successful, the pair may line up against Ireland at Parramatta Stadium on Monday night in a massive boost to Tonga's hopes of finishing top of their pool, which also contains Samoa, and advancing to the play-off for a place in semi-finals.
RLIF defends stance
The RLIF last night vowed to defend the case on the grounds that Moimoi and Tuiaki had last year applied to play for New Zealand, while Samoa coach John Ackland suggested Tonga were paying the price for accepting being the second choice of players wanting to represent either the Kiwis or Australia.
But in an indication of the strength of feeling in the island kingdom that Tonga are being unfairly treated, Tonga Rugby League director William Edwards revealed a sponsor with close ties to the royal family had offered to pay for the legal action.
"We are being supported by a corporate sponsor, and the crown princess is a shareholder of that company," Edwards told the Sydney Morning Herald when asked whether the royal family was aware of the court action.
Princess Salote Pilolevu Tuita, who will attend next Friday night's match against Samoa, was also at the church opening, attended by thousands of members of Sydney's Tongan community.
"It's a big deal for Tongan people to see their king," veteran back-rower Awen Guttenbeil said.
"This time last year, I got to meet the queen when I was in England with the All Golds, and now I've seen the King of Tonga."
Five-eighth Feleti Mateo, who would also have been ineligible to represent his country of heritage had he applied to be considered for selection in this year's State of Origin series, said: "I've never seen anything like this before. To see the king of my country is something special that I will treasure".
Mateo said the players were preparing to play without Moimoi and Tuiaki, but he agreed it would be a major boost if they succeeded in court. "If we do get them, I think it would be a big plus for us but we've got plenty of depth in the squad to cover for them if they're not there," he said.
Moimoi and Tuiaki will be in court today and are expected to give evidence. "I've never played a World Cup before in my life so I don't want to miss out," Moimoi said on Australian television.
Tuiaki said: "I just hope they give us a fair hearing because we want to play in the World Cup".
Lawyers for the pair are expected to argue that a rule under which they played for New Zealand last year and which allows players to change countries once before the World Cup was only introduced after they had helped Tonga qualify, and should not be imposed retrospectively.
But RLIF chairman and RLWC tournament director Colin Love said the TRL and the players were aware of the rules when Moimoi and Tuiaki applied to play for New Zealand.
Ackland said the rules were clear and other countries had abided by them. "I've got two opinions on it," Ackland said.
"Firstly, the rules were laid out quite clearly and everyone else has abided by them, and secondly, why would they be prepared to consider players when obviously they were their second choice?
"They [Tonga] waited for the Kiwis to pick their side, so it's like they were countenancing being second choice. We asked our guys a while ago if they wanted to play for New Zealand or Samoa and we have had certainty about our squad from the outset.
"It's a big thing of ours to establish international credibility for both the game and for Samoa."
The World Cup kicks off with England v PNG in Townsville on October 25.