Fri 13 September

BLOG: Cook Islands - from Niue to new heights

BLOG: Cook Islands - from Niue to new heights

RLWC2013 Blogger Tim Steere delves deep into the history of Rugby League on the Cook Islands, and gets the thoughts of Keith Lulia ahead of the nation's biggest challenge to date at Rugby League World Cup 2013.

In my last blog I focused on the largest nation taking part in Rugby League World Cup 2013, now it’s time for the smallest.

The Cook Islands may only have a population of around 15,000, but the country has already appeared in the Rugby League World Cup and enjoys a growing reputation on the international scene.

Despite a seemingly small number of people to choose from, there are many Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia playing in the NRL, and in the Super League in England, so they are well equipped to play and develop in the sport.

The Cook Islands started out in international Rugby League in 1986, when they entered and hosted the Pacific Cup. And It was a successful start, after winning their first ever match against Niue by 22 points to 8.

However, the Cookies were limited in their international competition. They played in the Pacific Cup until 1995, when they were awarded a place in the Emerging Nations tournament which ran alongside the Rugby League World Cup held in Great Britain.

And anyone who didn’t know about Cook Islands Rugby League before 1995 certainly did afterwards.

Drawn alongside Russia, USA and Scotland, the Cookies won all three games with an impressive points difference of +105. This included an 84-6 win over USA, which is still a record victory for the national side.

After reaching the final, a crowd of just over 4,000 at Bury FC’s Gigg Lane ground watched Cook Islands defeat Ireland in The Final 22-6.

This gave the Cook Islands the chance to play regular internationals between 1996 and 1998 against teams from the pacific region, and they were awarded a place in the Rugby League World Cup for the first time in 2000.

They suffered defeats to Wales and New Zealand in their group and drew with newcomers Lebanon. The Cook Islands didn’t make it through their pool, but they succeeded in demonstrating the fantastic progress made in recent years.

They say success breeds interest and, after winning the Pacific Rim Cup in 2004 with victory over New Zealand Maori in The Final, Rugby League’s popularity on the Islands sky-rocketed.

Impressive performances in victory over Fiji and Tonga in the run-up to the final led to the Cooks touring New Zealand in 2005, armed with confidence and pride following previous achievements.

They played a three-game series against New Zealand Maori, and a win, a draw and a defeat meant the series was tied, but it gained the national side exposure, with all three matches being broadcast on Maori TV across New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands.

A year later, Cook Islands headed into the Rugby League World Cup 2008 qualifiers, but suffered three defeats out of three against Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to leave them bottom of their group.

Then perhaps the nation’s defining moment in recent years came at the 2009 Pacific Cup, where they took on a Samoa side filled with NRL and Super League experience, and squared off against RLWC2008 semi-finalists Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Bradford Bulls centre Keith Lulia was a part of the side for those matches and is still able to reflect vividly on his experiences.

“I was called up for the Pacific cup in Papua New Guinea, and we made the final,” he recalled.

“Before that, we played Samoa to qualify for the Pacific Cup and then we played really well in the Cup and made the Grand Final.

“Unfortunately, we lost but that was a really big stepping stone for the Cook Islands. That put us on the map.

“Everyone knew the Cook Islands were a contender. We played Fiji and beat them to get into the final, we beat Samoa to get to the Cup and we matched Papua New Guinea.

“The Pacific Cup made people notice the Cook Islands. It showed that we are here to play and we are getting better and better.”

Bloodied but unbowed after their final defeat, the Cook Islands were rewarded for their efforts by being automatically awarded a place at Rugby League World Cup 2013, and have been drawn alongside Wales and USA in Group D.

Now led by former Australian international David Fairleigh, the Cookies are preparing for their first Rugby League World Cup in 13 years, and are hoping to gain a win for the very first time in the competition.

And Lulia belives the squad has the potential to achieve its goals.

“Zeb Taia will lead from the front. He’s a really good player, he’s played for New Zealand before and he’s represented Cook Islands as well.

“There are a few boys that are coming through in the NRL who have secured a starting spot there. You’ve got Zane Tetevano at Newcastle, who’s a big front rower who looks good.

“Tinirau Arona has always been in there at the Roosters, there’s Brad Takairangi at Gold Coast, and a few other young boys who’ve gained experience in the first grade.

“If they are all injury free and good to play, hopefully we can get a run together and go good at Rugby League World Cup 2013.”

Domestically, the nation’s premier grade competition now has 7 teams competing.

The Cooks are also developing under-19s, 16s and 13s leagues to augment and undeprin their development at senior level.

An Lulia attributes much of the success in developing the sport on the Islands to legendary former player and coach Kevin Iro, who the Bulls star cites as a major influence on his career.

“I didn’t really hear of him growing up through the ranks, but as I got older and established myself in first grade, I knew that he was in England playing,” said Lulia.

“He probably retired by the time I started first grade, but he’s the one who’s encouraging most of the players to come over to England and play.

“I think he was the one who got Anthony Gelling to come over to Wigan.

“Kevin is probably one of the greats to have come from the Cook Islands heritage,” Lulia added.

“He does lots of development stuff with the young boys in the Cook Islands and he lives out in Rarotonga at the moment.”

And as Lulia looks towards the challenges of Rugby League World Cup 2013, he hopes to be able to draw inspiration from the achievements of the Cook Island players before him.

“I can’t wait. After the league season I head back home to Australia. We’re moving back because I’m playing in the NRL next year.

“I’ll go back home for a little rest and recover, then we’re back into training and come back over here on October 13, and I can’t wait to get into it.

“I’ve never played in a Rugby League World Cup before so it’ll definitely be a highlight of my career.

“All the Cook Islanders will be watching it. The nation will definitely be getting behind us. My family definitely will, all my cousins and relatives will be watching.

“This will probably be the best shot we’ve had at a Rugby League World Cup, because we’ve got a lot of players in the NRL, and in the first teams, and players with lots of experience as well.

“Wales will be tough, and New Zealand will definitely let us know where we are at in the warm-up game, but judging by how we went in the Pacific Cup, hopefully we’ll go out there and do a job on a few teams and show everyone that we’re not just there to fill the numbers. We’re there to win.”

Cook Islands face USA at the Memorial Stadium in Bristol on October 30, Tonga at Leigh Sports Village on November 5 and Wales at The Gnoll in Neath on November 10.

Tickets for Rugby League World Cup 2013 are available, but selling out quickly. To make sure you will BE THERE buy now at www.rlwc2013.com/tickets or call the 24-hour Ticket Hotline on 0844 847 2013.

BLOG: Cook Islands - from Niue to new heights



Rugby League World Cup
Sat 23 NovNew Zealand 20-18 England
Sun 17 NovSamoa 4-22 Fiji
Sat 16 NovEngland 34-6 France
Fri 15 NovNew Zealand 40-4 Scotland
Mon 11 NovFrance 6-22 Samoa
Sun 10 NovWales 24-28 Cook Islands
Sat 09 NovEngland 34-12 Fiji
Fri 08 NovNew Zealand 56-10 Papua New Guinea
Thu 07 NovScotland 22-8 USA
Tue 05 NovTonga 22-16 Cook Islands

more results