Mon 08 October
The Cook Islands hung on for a tight win over Lebanon in their only match this year en route to RLWC2013. The sides last met in a thrilling encounter at the 2000 World Cup at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium which ended in a 22-all draw. Since then, the Cook Islands have been waiting thirteen years to return to the World Cup arena, whilst Lebanon are firmly focussed on 2017 after losing out to Italy in the qualifying competition for RLWC2013.
A close first half saw the Cook Islands lead 10-6 at the break, the match shaping as a battle between the islanders’ strength and handling, and the Cedars’ smart kicking. The Cooks’ greater NRL experience shone through in the second half as they ran in four further tries but, after building a solid 28-6 lead with ten minutes remaining, they dropped off markedly in the closing stages, allowing a thrilling Lebanon fightback.
Three quick tries saw the Cedars trail 24-28 with a minute to go, and only a last-ditch ankle tap from Cook Islands winger Chris Taripo saved a certain Lebanon try in the final seconds, as the islanders hung on for victory.
“We created heaps of opportunities but dropped the ball way too many times, and we were guilty of clocking off with 15 to go when we thought we had the game won,” admitted Cook Islands coach David Fairleigh.
“There’s no clock here and no scoreboard, so I think everyone was a little bit confused about the score, but it was a four-point ball game with a minute to go and I think everyone just scrambled well. Considering we only trained twice together this week, it was a good effort.”
The Cooks were missing regular first teamers Zane Tetevano, Brad Takarangi and Sam Mataora, while Cook Islands-eligible players including Alex Glenn (New Zealand) and James Tamou (Australia) have opted to play for other nations. But Fairleigh believes him team has enough talent to challenge at RLWC2013.
“We’ll be competitive,” Fairleigh insists. “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.”
The Cook Islands has a population of just 20,000, but with three times as many Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and thousands more in Australia, the country’s rugby league talent pool is both widespread and growing. The current Cooks squad features a mixture of NRL and Super League regulars, along with young NRL stars from the junior ranks and New South Wales Cup, including three who grew up in the Cook Islands.
Cooks officials hope to assemble a World Cup squad in which every player has NRL or Super League experience, in order to challenge co-hosts Wales, World Cup newcomers USA and Pacific heavyweights Tonga in the group stages. Former Cooks captain Kevin Iro, now the Cook Islands Rugby League (CIRL) Commissioner, believes his tiny nation can make a big impact if they can stay injury-free.
“I just can’t wait. It’s a showcase for Rugby League and I believe we’ve been placed in a good pool with USA and Wales, and we’ve just got to go there and be positive, and hope that not too many of our top guys get injured. We’ve probably got a solid 15 guys that have played NRL, but if two or three of them go down then it’s a big dent in our team.”
Cook Islands and Wigan Warriors centre Anthony Gelling, who was instrumental in the win over Lebanon, says he is looking forward to lining up against his Super League teammates at RLWC2013. “We’ve got quite a few Welsh boys at Wigan - Gil Dudson, Ben Flower and Rhodri Lloyd – and they’ll be playing against us in our pool, so we’ve been talking that up at training all week. It should be a good little rivalry.”
Catalan-bound Cook Islands second row Zeb Taia says there’s a healthy level of competition among the Cooks squad, with both regulars and newcomers pushing for places on the plane to RLWC2013. “Everyone knows that they have to play well next season to be part of the World Cup, because we’ll have a pretty good team once we have the full squad back and everyone’s fit. There were a couple of yong fill-ins for us today, but they did a good job and everyone’s happy with the win.
“From this part of the world, I think Samoa and Tonga are the best two Pacific island nations, but I reckon Fiji will be the surprise package at RLWC2013,” Taia adds.
Like most of his Cook Islands teammates, Taia has never been to England. He admits the cold weather could be an issue for his side, but hopes his experience at Catalan Dragons next season will give him the inside track ahead of RLWC2013, to “get a feel for the English weather and pick up some local knowledge”.
The Cook Islands will be based in Bristol for RLWC2013, close to their match venues in the city and in Neath. CIRL President Charles Carlson admits that, although he was initially surprised at the suggestion of staying in the south west, after visiting the host city earlier this year he believes it will be a perfect match for his side.
“I was in Bristol in May and I’m very pleased to see the whole city is really getting behind RLWC2013 and providing the Cook Islands with a base,” he enthuses.
“The support we’re getting from the key people in Bristol is awesome, and we’re really pleased with the access to the resources and facilities we’ll have there. It will be great to have the whole city behind us and supporting the Cook Islands, and I know they will do that. We want to create a little piece of the Pacific in Bristol.”
COOK ISLANDS – 28
Drury Low (Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs), Lulia Lulia (Illawarra Cutters), Geoff Daniela (Penrith Panthers), Anthony Gelling (Wigan Warriors), Chris Taripo (Sydney Roosters), Aaron Nootai (Auckland Vulcans), Isaac John (Wakefield Trinity), Neccrom Areaiiti (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Sam Brunton (Canberra Raiders), Tyrone Viiga (Cronulla Sharks), Dominique Peyroux (Gold Coast Titans), Zeb Taia (Newcastle Knights), Tinirau Arona (Sydney Roosters). Substitues: Joey Matapuku (North Sydney Bears), Adam Tangata (Mounties), Jeremiah Nia (Gold Coast Titans), Daniel Fepuleai (Mounties)
Tries: Nootai (10), Lulia (39), John (57), Nia (60), Gelling (62), Daniela (68)
Goals: Taripo (2/6)
LEBANON – 24
Daniel Bou-Sleiman (Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs), Eddy El Zabedieh (Mount Prichard), Adham El Zabedieh (Mount Prichard), Ali Hijazi (Wentworthville), Cliff Nye (Auburn), James Boustani (Wentworthville), Anthony Farah (Mount Prichard), Ray Moujali (Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs), Chris Salem (St Johns), Elias Succar (North Sydney Bears), Danny Barakat (Cabramatta), Nick Kassis (Mount Prichard), Casey Ellis (Cabramatta). Substitutes: Andrew Kazzi (Wests Tigers), Jarrad Azar (Wentworthville), Joe Constantine (Blacktown), Charlie Farah (unknown)
Tries: Kazzi (20), Nye (72), Bou-Sleiman (76), Succar (78)
Goals: Boustani 4/4
Half time: 10-6
Attendance: 1,000 est