NRL Rd 8 - Bulldogs v Roosters
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Tevita Pangai Junior of the Bulldogs looks on during the round eight NRL match between the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Sydney Roosters at Stadium Australia on April 30, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

New Year’s Eve is still months away but the Canterbury Bulldogs’ hopes for 2023 have already been dealt a massive boost following the revelation that a star back-rower has decided to skip the World Cup and focus on ensuring he’s fully fit for the Belmore club come Round 1 next year.

The Daily Telegraph has revealed that Tevita Pangai Junior has informed Tongan national team coach Kristian Woolf of his decision to prioritise recovery and the Bulldogs over representing his nation in England – just 10 days after he was announced as a member of the extended 32-man squad.

It’s been a tough year for Pangai, who spent a spell in NSW Cup at the back-end of the season. But with new coach Cameron Ciraldo taking the reins for his first pre-season, Pangai has already expressed his determination to prove his worth to the new regime.

"For (Ciraldo) to be appointed Canterbury coach is a dream come true," Pangai said.

"I've had some good coahes like JD (Jason Demetriou) and Wayne (Bennett), but he's the real deal.

"I know it all doesn't come down to the coach, I've got to do my part too. If I fail, that's on me, not 'Ciro'. The next two years are so important to me."

The Telegraph also reports that Bulldogs prop Raymond Faitala-Mariner has made a similar decision to focus on recovery and the NRL season ahead.

While Pangai would have formed part of an imposing pack including the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Andrew Fifita, his international team mates don’t hold any ill-will over the decision.

“There’s no ill-feeling towards Tevita, that’s not what this team is built on,” Fifita told the Telegraph.

“He’s made a call he believes will help his football at Canterbury and his career, you can’t begrudge anyone of that.”

Pangai is the second prop to rule himself out for Tonga in as many days, after young Wests Tigers star Stefano Utoikamanu ruled himself out for similar reasons after a prolonged recovery from a scaphoid injury.

“After the year I’ve had, I need to spend as much time as I can getting my strength back up. That’s my priority right now,” Utoikamanu said.

Tonga’s World Cup campaign kicks off on October 18 (local) against Papua New Guinea in St Helens. They are in Group D, which also includes Wales and the Cook Islands.