Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea have automatically qualified to the next World Cup after making it through to the 2017 RLWC quarter-finals this weekend.
This means the Cook Islands will now avoid the tough Pacific qualifiers and will compete in the Americas Confederation pool which will include USA, Caribbean, Canada and Africa, in the bid to get back into the World Cup competition.
However, Cook Islands Rugby League Association president Charles Carlson said they would not take their spot in the 2021 World Cup for granted, as teams in the Americas Confederation had proven strong at international meets in the past.
“The Cook Islands have learned that you never underestimate any team in their last World Cup 2013 after getting beaten by USA in the pool match,” Carlson said.
“Like the Cook Islands, the USA, with NRL players in the squad, eventually made the quarter finals, earning them an automatic qualification into the WC 2017.”
Carlson said the Pacific Confederation pool was always the hardest pool to compete in.
The very high performance of the Pacific teams dominating the World Cup 2017 highlighted the very high standard of the game in the region, he added.
The national team had to battle a formidable Tongan side in the 2017 World Cup qualifiers last year, narrowly losing that match.
Tonga has moved on to become one of the dominant forces in this World Cup after their big win against the New Zealand Kiwis in the pool competition last week.
Carlson said the inclusion of Jason Taumalolo, who was also playing for Tonga against the Cook Islands in the World Cup 2013, had helped beef up the team.
“Only two Europeans team out of the eight quarterfinalists (in this World Cup) shows how the Pacific teams have really developed over the years.”
Carlson said they had started working on plans to regain their spot in the World Cup competition after cementing a place in next year’s Pacific Test, possibly against Samoa.
This was made possible after the national team’s narrow loss to PNG during the Pacific Test early this year.
“It has been our goal to make sure we are part of the Pacific Test every year as part of our preparation for the World Cup qualifying competition in 2019,” Carlson said.
“This is a lesson learned during the 2015 World Cup qualifying match against Tonga where Tonga had three international Test matches leading up to that game and we had none!”
Meanwhile Tonga will take on Lebanon, Fiji will play the Kiwis, Samoa will battle the Australian Kangaroos and PNG will face England in the 2017 RLWC quarters this weekend.