Teen star Isaiya Katoa continues to exceed the expectations of Dolphins coach-in-waiting Kristian Woolf and is set to be a key member of his Tonga side in the end-of-season series against England.
Katoa, who scored his first NRL try in last weekend’s stunning 36-16 triumph against Cronulla, has been forced to assume the chief playmaking duties for the Dolphins following an injury to halfback Sean O’Sullivan and continues to impress.
The 19-year-old has the rare distinction of having played a Test for Tonga at last year’s World Cup before making his NRL debut in the opening round match against Sydney Roosters and Woolf said Katoa was a star in the making.
Katoa opens the scoring
“He is an important player for us, and we bought him away for the World Cup as a young bloke more for the experience,” Woolf said.
“He was 18 at the time, and he was still doing his high school exams while we were in England, so we were thinking he was a player of the future.
“Once we got him into training, and once he played against France in a trial, with the drive that he had and the influence he had on the team as a young man, we knew that we had to give him some opportunity to play, and he did that really well.”
After handing Katoa his Test debut against Papua New Guinea, Woolf has been closely involved in the development of the star rookie in his role as Dolphins assistant coach until taking over from Wayne Bennett in 2025.
Tonga has achieved great success since the 2017 World Cup, but Woolf has never previously had an established NRL playmaker at his services and he is looking forward to Katoa calling the shots against England.
“He is only getting better at the moment, and I really like the progression that he is on in terms of his improvement.” Woolf said.
“The more he gets to play NRL, which he is doing every week at the moment, the more prepared he is going to be for international rugby league, so he is going to be in a great position for us at the end of the year.”
Tonga will be the first Pacific nation to play a series against England and Woolf said he hoped South Sydney's Ben Hornby and North Queensland's Dean Young, who have both been linked to the Dragons, would remain as his assistants.
“They are two really well credentialed coaches and they are both first grade coaches in the making so that sort of experience is great for them and their expertise is great for us,” Woolf said.
“I am hoping to be able to keep those two on board and the same with our strength and conditioning staff and our medical staff. In most cases they have been with us for a long time, and they are all involved in the NRL.”
With the majority of the Tonga squad playing in the NRL, Woolf said the players were involved in the decision to accept England's invitation to play Tests at St Helens on October 22, Huddersfield on October 28 and Leeds on November 4.
Woolf said Bennett also backed the historic series, which Tonga are viewing as an opportunity to make amends for their World Cup exit after a 20-18 quarter-final loss to Samoa.
Match Highlights: Tonga v Samoa
“He was extremely supportive. He’s seen the real positives and strengths of what it does for Tonga and international rugby league,” Woolf said of Bennett.
“He’s extremely supportive of it and certainly thought it was the way we should go. It was great to have that endorsement.”
“For Tonga, we have never had the opportunity to be invited to tour the UK or play a three-Test series against anybody, so it is a very historic occasion for us and a very proud occasion for us.
“It is a bit of a grow up moment for us that we do get that opportunity to be the headline team and play a series rather than a one-off Test match or a couple of games.
“The players all understand the historic nature of that, and to really make amends for some disappointments at the World Cup and show that we can play at our best over there.
"That was the over-riding feeling and there was an over-riding excitement about that as well.”