For Kayal Iro, growing up in the Cook Islands was about being connected to his culture and who he was – but most of all it was about family.
The up-and-coming star is one of four players in the Cook Islands squad brought up in the Cook Islands.
After a strong performance in the Nines, he is readying himself after selection for his upcoming game against the USA Tomahawks in Jacksonville Florida in two weeks’ time.
It’s important to know who you are and where you are from, says Iro, speaking about the experience of putting on the Cook Islands jersey and representing the country.
“It’s what drives me,” he says. Knowing you’re proud to be a Cook Islander is an important part of being a rugby league player for the Cook Islands.
Speaking about his time growing up and of playing league in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Iro says it’s bare feet until you play U19s, jerseys too big and taped up, and always playing up two or three grades against boys much bigger then yourself – but it teaches you to be strong no matter what you come up against.
His father, league legend Kevin Iro, always taught him to work hard no matter what or where he found himself.
Kayal moved to Auckland when he was 14 and spent the next four years at Mt Albert Grammar.
And though the school is considered one of the best rugby union schools in the country, he chose to play league – against his dad’s advice.
“In fact, when it came to playing boys my own age and size, when I moved to Mt Albert Grammar for secondary school it was lot easier than against the men I played against for my club, the Arorangi Bears.”
Rarotonga was a great place to learn to love the game, Iro says. “No money, no sponsors, no flash stadiums or jerseys just your team mates – who were often cousins.
“And in Raro, I got to play alongside my uncle who is also the same age. You learn that it’s family on and off the field, and I guess for us Cook Islanders, that’s how we approach the game.
“We are more than just team-mates, we are family.”
Asked about his success for the Cook Islands Nines team, Iro says it was by far his greatest achievement playing against the guys he had looked up to.
“What made a difference for us as a team was our strong bond together, we were family, we ate together trained together and were connected by our Cook Islands culture.
“Our Cook Islands music played at training,” Iro says, “and when we received our jerseys we danced to the front to receive them because this is what bonded us together our identity and our culture.”
Iro is calling on Cook Islands community to get behind and support their team against the USA Tomahawks. Be proud, he says, because the team are proud to be representing every single one of our Cook Islands community, no matter where in the world they are. “At the end of the day we are all family."