Cook Islands rugby league dreams big

Thursday February 08, 2018 Written by Published in League
Cook Islands Rugby League Association president Charles Carlson hopes that the success of Tonga at the 2017 World Cup encourages more Cook Islanders with maternal links to play for the national team. 18020712 Cook Islands Rugby League Association president Charles Carlson hopes that the success of Tonga at the 2017 World Cup encourages more Cook Islanders with maternal links to play for the national team. 18020712

Cook Islands Rugby League Association president Charles Carlson says he is blessed with incredible talent, but is constantly battling money issues, local expectations and the sport at large.

 

When it comes to future or current NRL superstars, the names of Cook Islanders flow off the tongue: Valentine Holmes, Jordan Rapana, Brad Takairangi, Dylan Napa and Esan Marsters included.

But getting professional players of that calibre into a Kuki jersey is a whole different battle.

“For the Cook Islands, we don’t get the same opportunities as Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, PNG, and unfortunately, we get marginalised by the ruling body,” Carlson said.

“At the end of the day it comes down to bums on seats, and they don’t see us as someone that can bring in dollars.”

Carlson believes the Cook Islands should be marketed as one of the top teams in the Pacific, but he says the Rugby League International Federation does not agree, and CIRLA has to scrap just to find a game to play.

They played and defeated World Cup quarter-finalists Lebanon in 2016, at a great monetary expense, with a team made up of U20 and reserve grade players, and Carlson relayed a conversation that he had with an NRL chief executive that summed up that situation ahead of the game.

“He said to me ‘why should we release our players to play against Lebanon, when they could just get injured?’”

At the time, head coach Alex Chan complained about the relationship with the NRL clubs, saying that they pressured their players to put money before their country.

In the World Cup qualifying match against Tonga, Parramatta Eels second-rower Tepai Moeroa was raring to go in the changing room, but ultimately was not allowed to play.

“On one hand, seeing the enthusiasm from such a young guy, wanting to represent his native island, was really encouraging.

“But on the other hand, because we aren’t New Zealand or Australia, the clubs just don’t see our games as meaningful or important.

“And they’re wrong. We’ve shown that playing for us can be an important stepping stone for their careers.”

He pointed to Esan Marsters, the budding West Tigers star who debuted for the Cook Islands in last year’s Pacific Test.

At the time, the young Junior Kiwis and U20s tyro was known as a hard-running second rower with a bit of ball skill.

But due to a shortage in the centres Marsters, who had experience playing there in his younger days, was moved to the backs, and has since established himself at the top level in that position.

Carlson also mused that the Cook Islands maybe could have been the breakout story of the Rugby League World Cup instead of Tonga.

In the qualifiers, Tonga was able to field a totally professional side, whereas the Cook Islands struggled, but almost claimed victory regardless.

Despite the ongoing issues with NRL clubs, Carlson is confident one that day they will be able to one day field a totally professional Kuki team, even if it upsets some locals.

“People still dream about amateurs playing, but now the game is professional. We have to select our squad by picking the best players, which means those playing overseas” Carlson explained.

“I don’t agree that we should be picking local players in the international squad, because it’s a different calibre of player now and we have to be realistic.

“Australia has, like, five tiers of quality, and we have local players that would be in the fourth level of that quality locally.”

Carlson rejects calls for a quota of local players in the national side, saying that there are no privileges at the top level.

He is encouraged by the number of Cook Islanders who are in the top tier of the game, and hopes that a player like Jason Taumalolo, who turned his back on the Kiwis to represent Tonga, would act as a beacon for up and coming Kukis.

But in order to entice a player like Valentine Holmes to play, the team needs to play games, which is made all the more difficult as rugby league is, in Carlson’s estimation, the poorest major sporting code in the country.

“If we only get $25,000 from the governing body, then we’re all volunteers. At some point we need to look at how we can get our own funding.

“The organisation is getting bigger, so we did look at restructuring to handle our vision moving forward, which is to remain competitive internationally.”

Although he sees himself soon moving on from the role of president in the next year or so, he is determined to make sure that the game is in safe hands when he leaves.

He hopes that one day, either he or a successor will not be restrained by finances, and the Cook Islands will take their rightful place as one of the top sides in the world.

“I just imagine what we can do with resources. If we had more, we could ring up the Kiwis and challenge them. Or say that we are going to tour England, Wales and France, like the other teams do.

“That’s the dream.”

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