World Cup Countdown: Cook Islands

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 380 (Dec 2012)

It’s not easy putting together a World Cup squad when the entire population of your country barely fills a small stadium. But the Cook Islands managed it in 2000 and, thirteen years later, they’re back to fly the flag for one of the world’s smallest nations at RLWC2013.

Fortunately the Cook Islands’ modest population of 18,000 is boosted by three times as many Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, and thousands more in Australia. But while the diaspora creates a large player pool, it also presents a challenge

“The population back home is very small but we’ve got a big population of Cook Islanders in New Zealand and Australia, some of whom are playing NRL, and we’re trying to get more of them to play Super League as well,” explains Cook Islands Rugby League (CIRL) President Charles Carlson. “The players are spread out but we’ve managed to really build a good structure and put a good system in place to develop the Cook Islands Rugby League.”

Much of that is thanks to CIRL Commissioner Kevin Iro. The former Wigan, Leeds and St Helens favourite captained the Cooks at the 2000 World Cup (their only previous appearance) and now lives in Rarotonga (the largest of the fifteen Cook Islands) where he oversees the nation’s Rugby League development and manages a sports academy.

League is the most popular spectator sport in the Cook Islands, according to Iro, and runs the most widespread domestic competition of any sport, with a team from the island of Aitutaki lining up against six Rarotonga-based clubs.

But with so many of its players living abroad, CIRL has been forced to adopt a regional approach. Away from Rarotonga, CIRL has affiliate branches in New Zealand, New South Wales and Queensland to engage and coordinate its widely scattered talent. This international framework was put in place after RLWC2000, and Iro says it’s still paying dividends for the national team.

“We needed to work together and get a good player database,” he explains. “We’ve achieved that and there’s more cohesion now between those three main areas, and now we’re able to identify talent at a younger age, when there are young Cook Islands boys coming through.”

Thanks to Iro, “the boys” are now starting to come through from the islands themselves, not just Australia and New Zealand. His Cook Islands Sports Academy was established to create pathways for young, talented sportsmen to play professionally overseas, and Adam Tangata is one of his Rugby League success stories.

Tangata grew up in Rarotonga and attended Iro’s academy, paving the way for  him move to Australia last year, where he was snapped up by Canberra Raiders’ under 20’s set-up. In 2012 he played for both the Raiders under 20’s side and their New South Wales Cup feeder club Mounties in Sydney (also home to Cook Islands veteran and former captain Tere Glassie). Tangata will remain in Australia next year to continue his World Cup preparation in professional Rugby League surroundings, and admits the move has been life-changing.

“Money is everything over here, it’s all about opportunity,” he says. “Back home I’m probably the only one who has left the Cook Islands to do something like this. Australia’s just the land of opportunity, so you’ve got to take everything that you’re given here.

“This year was actually my first full season playing Rugby League, so it was a real eye-opener, but I’ve come a long way this year. Hopefully I’ll make the World Cup team next year too. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m excited. I’ve only ever been to Australia and New Zealand so it would be great to be able to travel and see the world through Rugby League.”

But in a nation of just 18,000, how many more Adam Tangatas are running around on a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific waiting to be discovered? Plenty, insists Iro. Cooks internationals Sam Mataora (Canberra Raiders) and Tupou Sopoaga (Canterbury Bulldogs) also grew up in the islands before moving to Australia, and Iro is confident they won’t be the last. “There are kids that can come out of the islands and make it to the highest level, certainly,” he affirms.

The Cook Islands missed out on qualifying for RLWC2008, but bounced back the following year as the surprise package of the 2009 Pacific Cup in Papua New Guinea, knocking out Samoa and World Cup semi-finalists Fiji before going down to the Kumuls in the final. Many of the Cooks’ youngsters from that tournament are now NRL regulars, including Catalans-bound Zeb Taia, Tinirau Arona (Sydney Roosters), Dominique Peyroux (Gold Coast Titans) and Zane Tetevano (Newcastle Knights). They will be joined at RLWC2013 by Wigan’s Anthony Gelling, Wakefield’s Isaac John, and the next generation of NRL juniors.

Although the Cook Islands will be one of the youngest sides at the World Cup, Cooks coach and former St Helens forward David Fairleigh believes his team will make an impact. “We’ll be competitive,” Fairleigh insists, after watching his side defeat Lebanon 28-24 in Sydney in October. “I don’t think anyone expects us to win the World Cup, but certainly we want to be competitive within our pool and we think we can do that if we’ve got all our best players on the field.”

For this small, isolated nation, involvement in any international event is a big deal. RLWC2013 offers the Cooks multiple opportunities – to develop Rugby League, to promote Cook Islands tourism (the country’s main industry) on the world stage, and to unite Cook Islanders through participating in a major sporting event.

Iro explains: “Being in the World Cup is massive for us – we’re the only sport from the Cook Islands that has ever qualified for a world cup. I think netball have a chance, but now rugby union don’t have a chance until the next one. So, as far as international exposure goes, Rugby League is flying the flag for the Cook Islands at the moment.”

By: Joanna Lester