The Cook Islands will play the most important game next month in their short but colourful history, a game against Fiji to determine who will qualify as Oceania 1 for Rugby World Cup 2015 in England.
The Cook Islands is one of the IRB’s 14 Oceania Member Unions and has been in this situation before while attempting to qualify for the 1999 and 2007 tournaments. On the verge of qualification in 1997, they lost to Tonga and Fiji, and in 2006 lost a two-Test series to Tonga.
So excited by the prospect of having another shot at qualifying, the Cook Islands Rugby Union has created a community campaign called ‘One Win, One Dream’. The campaign’s aim is to build community awareness of the match, support the Union’s voluntary work and to raise funds for talent identification, warm-up fixtures, team travel, team camps and preparations.
The Union President Lara Sadaraka reveals: “In 2013, we won the Oceania Cup by defeating Papua New Guinea (37-31), Solomon Islands (39-12) and Tahiti (38-5). This was stage one of the qualifying process for the Rugby World Cup. The next phase of the qualifying process is a one-off Test against Fiji.”
“In essence the Cook Islands are ‘One Win’ away from participating at Rugby’s showcase event. This presents the Cook Islands with a wonderful opportunity and we are excited with the potential this holds for our proud nation. We are not overwhelmed by the task at hand, we are ready and raring to embrace it and give it our very best shot.”
IRB invests in development of Pacific Rugby
It is a big task given that Oceania Rugby has been dominated for many years by Fiji, Samoa and, to a lesser extent, by neighbours Tonga. The Pacific Islands do represent one of the world’s most amazing Rugby nurseries and the IRB is investing significant funds in ongoing development through high-performance programmes in the three senior island nations.
Nonetheless, Rugby has been played in the Cook Islands since the 1920s. In 1954 the Rarotonga Rugby Union was formed but it was only in 1989 that a national body, the Cook Islands Rugby Union, was established in an attempt to centralise the Game in Rarotonga and the other 14 outer islands that make up the country. In March 1995, the Cook Islands Rugby Union became a Full Member of the IRB.
Like many of the Pacific Island nations, a large number of Cook Islanders live and work in New Zealand, where many play Rugby. Many players of Cook Island heritage have played for New Zealand, including most recently, Rene Ranger. And, for such a small nation, they compete at some of the highest levels of the Game. The Cook Islands men’s Sevens team participates each year at various tournaments and has qualified to compete at this year’s Hong Kong Sevens and also the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
Undaunted by their Fijian opponents, the Cooks have been busy preparing for the qualification match and, according to the team’s manager Cam Kilgour, this campaign will be a strong one.
“The past 10 months have seen big changes in and around Cook Islands Rugby in terms of our structure and the player base. Barry George (Fifteens head coach), Chad Tuoro (Sevens head coach) and myself know how important it is to have the Cook Islands as a tier two nation and we believe we have the talent to do that, both in the Cook Islands and around the world, especially New Zealand.”
Oceania Cup win was the first step
“First and foremost, if we are to succeed in this goal we need to have improved programmes for all our players and set up strong competitions between them. The 2013 Oceania Cup in PNG was the first step and a big step forward for our plan to develop. Now we have the chance to play Fiji in a one-off match.”
“This is our biggest opportunity to date. We have some very good players and, with the amount of players who have now made themselves available to play for the Cook Islands, we believe it’s not a long shot like in the past.”
“Spearheading the challenge will be prop Stan Wright (Auckland, Leinster and now Stade Francais) who, as a professional, has great influence on other overseas Cook Island players. His leadership on and off the field carries huge respect in the Cook Islands community.”
“Hooker Francis Smith (Tasman Makos) and wing Chay Raui (Auckland) bring more leadership and experience to the squad with ITM Cup experience. Other notable players high on our radar are Tim Bateman (NZ Maori), Joe Kamana (Melbourne Rebels) and Sam Anderson-Heather (Otago), plus others in Japan and in Europe.”
Only 80 minutes away from RWC 2015
“We now have great competition for spots and the fact that we are only 80 minutes away from opening Rugby World Cup 2015 against England at Twickenham is a huge incentive. Over the past few weeks we have added Brent Semmons as forwards coach and current Auckland Sevens coach Paul Feeney as our backs coach, adding even more strength to our challenge,” added Kilgour.
Fiji is currently ranked 11th in the IRB World Rankings while the Cook Islands are ranked 46th. Fiji has 8,500 registered senior male players compared the Cooks’ 500 spread across 29 clubs. So you can see why the Cooks Islands are excited by the challenge of having the opportunity to play Fiji and to qualify for RWC 2015. If they pull it off it would be a major but welcome surprise, the realisation of a dream that begins and ends with one win.