The Cook Islands, a collection of fifteen small islands in the Pacific Ocean between French Polynesia and American Samoa, burst onto the international Rugby League scene in 1995 when they won the Halifax Emerging Nations World Cup with a 22-6 victory over Ireland in the final at Gigg Lane, Bury.
Five years later the Cook Islanders stepped up to the main event and took part in the 2000 Rugby League World Cup. They performed valiantly in defeats against New Zealand and Wales and notched their first point in a draw with Lebanon.
With a population of just 20,000 the Cook Islands, named in honour of the Captain James Cook who landed on the islands in 1773, is one of the smallest members of the Rugby League of nations but they've produced some of the biggest names in the game including former Kiwi captain John Whittaker, the legendary Kevin ‘the Beast’ Iro, Tony Iro (current Kiwis assistant coach), Adam Watene, Matt Rua and Karmichael Hunt. Many more young players are forging a path through the NRL competition.
The game took a foothold in 1979 with a match between a country team and a town team and the first international match was played against Niue in the 1986 Pacific Cup. The domestic Rugby League season currently involves seven clubs, six on the main island of Rarotonga and one side on the outer island of Aitutaki, and runs from February to May.
Cook Islands Rugby League Association (CIRLA) Director Charles Carlson explained: "Rugby League is certainly huge in the Cook Islands but for many years it was Rugby Union that dominated.
"In 2004 RL started to make a comeback on the international scene winning a one off test against an Australian Affiliated States side and then we went on to win the Pacific Rim Cup.
"The CIRLA then started to develop the junior grades and introduced an U17 side. Now we have a very successful sides at U13s, U16s and U19s grades. The aim for next season is to tap into the primary school development.
“We were gutted when we missed out on the 2008 World Cup qualifying in 2006 after being beaten by our Pacific brothers in all games. However we went back to the drawing board, regrouped and came back fighting,” added Charles
The success of their Pacific Cup 2009 campaign in defeating the established national teams of Samoa and Fiji before meeting Papua New Guinea in the final booked the Cook Islanders a berth in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
“The squad coached by former Parramatta Eels assistant coach David Fairleigh and with only one NRL player in the team performed like true warriors to the delight of the whole nation!” exclaimed Charles.
Nation Fact File
Area: 240 square kilometres over 15 islands within 2 million square miles of ocean
Capital: Avarua on the main island of Rarotonga
The domestic Cook Islands rugby league competition for 2010 will be contested by the following teams: Titikaveka Bulldogs, Tupapa Panthers, Avatiu Eels, Takuvaine Warriors - juniors only, Arorangi Bears, Aitutaki Sharks - senior team only, Ngatangiia/Matavera Sea Eagles