It will be the launch pad for exciting times ahead for rugby league in the Cook Islands, aiming to re-instill pride and professionalism within the game here at home.
The high performance training programme will open doors for local players, grow and lift the standard of the local club competition and create partnership opportunities within the global league family that could see top overseas teams tour to play under the sun in the Cooks.
The programme and accompanying plans to grow Cook Islands rugby league has generated a wave of excitement among local players, club coaches and local businesses. It has even drawn interest from league enthusiasts from overseas, including New Zealand businessman Sir Peter Charles Leitch, also known as ‘The Mad Butcher’ and famous for his promotion of rugby league.
He has already shown support for the development of the code by indicating he will provide signed Warriors rugby league jerseys and other apparel to help the local association raise much-needed funds needed to grow the code in the Cook Islands.
Support has also come from former and current top level league players. And a growing relationship between the Cook Islands and the New Zealand Maori league association will see a regular tournament between the two, giving locally-based players every opportunity to shine.
Local sports heroes including Avatiu legend Terry Piri have also jumped on board to be part of the high performance training team.
The renewed league development fire here at home has been fueled by comments made over the years that locally-based players are not good enough to make the international Cook Islands league team.
Local league coach Riki Cowan and league administrator Taua Benioni have both played top level league and are the drivers behind the rugby league high performance training programme.
“We have all the talent here at home,” say the pair. “We’ve made too many excuses in the past for our failures and it’s time to put aside the negativity and do the hard work needed to lift the standard of league here at home.”
Funding has always been a major issue, but Cowan and Benioni believe a concentrated effort to grow local players and the success they believe will follow, will lead to revived funding from the international body.
“With this programme and ongoing development we know that the big players overseas will take note and see that the Cooks will be a threat on the field,” says Cowan.
The two were inspired to create a high performance programme after attending the recent Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea, where Cowan was the assistant national league coach and Benioni a technical official for the league 9s competition.
At the tournament, the Cook Islands national side were touted as favourites to take out the gold medal. But while the local lads displayed impressive skills, they failed to reach the podium.
Cowan and Benioni decided it was time the Cooks stopped making excuses for their shortcomings. Back home, they began the ground work to set up a high performance training programme that would give local players the opportunity to taste high level league development training in a professional manner.
The programme will be delivered over a weekend once a month. Top local club league players and coaches will come together in a camp and be engaged in technical league training sessions and fitness testing as well as learning the importance of managing sports injury, nutrition advice, game day preparations and even motivational speakers to inspire the players.
Cowan says he would also like to see top local league players become strong community role models and be part of the solution to some of the country’s social issues.
The overall mission is to lift the standard of rugby league at all levels of the game from coaching to playing, and even the administration and delivery of the sport.
Next year, junior development at the grassroots level will also be included as part of the long term goal of growing a professional rugby league culture in the Cook Islands.
As an incentive for the seven rugby league clubs in the Cook Islands to take advantage of the high performance programme and for players to put in practice their new league skills and knowledge, a club 9s league tournament will be held in the first weekend of January 2016.
The tournament will be a top level competition that will provide the drive to lift the standard of the game and the delivery of the hugely popular local club competition.
All seven rugby league clubs have shown support for the high performance training programme and club 9s tournament which will have top cash prizes up for grabs for the clubs, who must field their best sides
The tournament will set the tone for the 2016 season, which will be run more professionally as pressure goes on all clubs to ensure they field only the best teams right across the age grades.
Thirty top local league players will be part of the first high performance training programme next weekend, including talented youth athletes BJ Heather, Teariki Matenga Jnr and Rangi Piri, as well as experienced players such as national 9s captain Teina Savage and Eddie Marama.
The first camp will be held at the CIFA complex in Matavera.
The association is very appreciative of the support they are receiving and look forward to more local businesses jumping on board to boost they see as an exciting future for Cook Islands rugby league.