Andrew Fifita has emerged as a shock Tonga captaincy contender after skipper Sika Manu was ruled out of next month's historic rugby league Test against Australia with a knee injury.
Tonga coach Kristian Woolf is reeling after Manu suffered the season-ending injury in Hull FC's UK Super League last-round loss to St Helens just days after naming his initial 29-strong Test squad.
"That's devastating for the team. He's an integral part of the side, we will certainly miss him," Woolf told AAP.
"Now we have to look at someone filling that void."
North Queensland's Jason Taumalolo and Canterbury livewire Will Hopoate appeared favourites as fill-in skippers for Tonga's first clash against Australia after sharing the captaincy in Manu's absence in June's Pacific Test.
But Woolf believed Fifita had shown this year he could step up and lead the Mate Ma'a in the October 20 clash in Auckland.
"We have emerging leaders in the group like Jason Taumalolo and Will Hopoate but there are a number of guys who have real leadership potential like Andrew Fifita," Woolf said.
"He has certainly shown some leadership at the Sharks this year but it will come down to who we think is best suited."
Fifita has filled in as Cronulla skipper this year but appeared an unlikely Tonga captaincy choice after last month's post-try blow-up at the Sharks coach's box and a recent foul-mouthed podcast appearance.
However, Woolf said Fifita had become a spiritual leader for Tonga after inspiring others with his surprise 2017 World Cup switch from the Kangaroos to the Mate Ma'a.
Taumalolo followed his lead, switching from New Zealand, before Tonga made a dream run to the Cup semi-finals.
Woolf said it was inspiring for the team that Fifita and Taumalolo had committed to Tonga "for the long haul".
"They have made a massive impact, that is obvious to see," he said.
"It speaks volumes of those blokes as people the way they have taken a punt and made a sacrifice, and also the way people have wanted to be involved because of them.
"They are committed to Tonga and set for the long haul.
"Any success we have they can be proud of the contribution they have made."
Scott Sorensen - nephew of Kiwi greats Dane and Kurt Sorensen - is Tonga's latest convert after the Cronulla forward was named in the extended squad.
Woolf will name his final squad next month before taking Tonga on a 10-day camp.