When the Cook Islands rugby team participated at the South Pacific Games in Tahiti in 1971, it was the first time the national side had competed at an international level.
The rugby players were part of a ‘super-team’ – a 130-strong contingent to the 4th South Pacific Games in French Polynesia. This team also included participants in men’s volleyball, women’s indoor basketball, boxing, sailing, tennis, soccer, table-tennis, athletics, and yes -- fishing!
The Cooks had participated in the first SPG in Fiji in 1963, and then the second event in New Caledonia (where the netballers won gold) in 1966. However the teams were relatively small because of the cost of air-travel in those days.
With the September 1971 games being a two-night boat trip from Rarotonga to nearby Tahiti, it was decided that this was great opportunity for Cook Islands to participate in the sports programme on offer.
The job of team manager was given to Arorangi stalwart William Heather – his wife Niotangi was in the ladies tennis team. Assisting Heather was Pokoina Tommy and chaperone Tuaine Keenan. The title of ‘team captain’ was given to Bill Hosking from Titikaveka, who also captained the rugby team and was one of the flag-bearers at the opening ceremony.
Hosking learned his rugby while attending Wanganui Collegiate in the 1950s and then at Massey College – a horticultural institute in the Manawatu in New Zealand. After completing his studies, he started playing in the Titikaveka senior side upon his return to Rarotonga.
While working as an extension officer in the Agriculture Department, he captained the Rarotonga XV against Aitutaki in the mid-1960s and was skipper of his village team prior to the South Pacific Games.
But he almost didn’t make the tour to Tahiti.
“I was still recovering from dengue and it took me a long time to shake it off,” recalls Hosking. “People like papa Dan Kamana encouraged me and told me that I needed to go.”
Hosking believes the hard training before the tour helped with the recovery process and he looked forward to the trip to Tahiti.
“The spirit of the team was one, the boys were really focussed – we had a very young team.”
Fundraising was entered into right across the country that year – the costs of travel by boat, accommodation and uniforms had to be covered locally.
Training by the other codes were also in full swing, with rugby and boxing – which experienced gold medal success in Fiji in 1963 -- being touted as the best chances of getting onto the games podium.
The rugby team was coached by Takai Toka, who worked as a surveyor and learned his rugby as a scholarship student at New Plymouth Boys’ High School in New Zealand. Upon his return, he also played his rugby for Titikaveka.
“They were a top rugby school in New Zealand at the time and they were coached by a guy [JJ Stewart] who was to become the All Blacks coach,” recalls Hosking.
A series of trial matches against various selections were played on Rarotonga during the 1971 domestic season. Club games would be played on Saturday, and trials on Monday or Wednesday!
All six clubs on Rarotonga were represented in the final selection – the team was as follows: Bill Hosking (captain), Tom Kopa (vice-captain), Archer Hosking, Charlie Strickland, Moana Piri, Geoffrey Heather, Bob Estall, Purua Tupangaia, Mouauri Raea, Upokoiti Vaiimene, Amene Rangi, Ngatoa John, Povaru Povaru, Richard Browne, Joe Browne, John Best, Anau Manarangi, Joe Manuel, Joe Cowan, Ngatokorua Takau, Nee Povaru, Tione Paara, Isaia Isaia, Mata Takairangi, Pare Rongokea, Rouru Matapo.
Most of these players were to become household names in the 1970s. Included in the team was the nucleus of the Tupapa backline – Browne, Kopa, Piri, Browne and Povaru Povaru (who was at Takuvaine at the time) – which was to serve the club well throughout that decade.
The new Tupapa fullback Nii Arona missed out on selection as well as prop Apera Samuel who was controversially axed from the squad for missing a number of training runs.
Despite not having a home ground, Takuvaine was one of the more competitive senior sides on the island, alongside Tupapa, Titikaveka and Arorangi at the time.
It was only in the mid-70s when the club was able to use Tereora College’s field for its home games. This all changed in 1984 when the ground was converted to the National Stadium to host the pending Mini South Pacific Games.
There were actually a number of (soon-to-be and) senior club rugby players who were selected to attend the games in other codes. Tupou Faireka, Ben Patai and Fabian Kairua were in the volleyball team; Murare John, Tangaina Patia and Tunu’u Hosking were members of the soccer squad; Tom Marsters and Matamaru Tongia travelled as boxers; Tekorona Tekorona and Tepoave Raitia were both athletes, and Kiriau Turepu was one of the tennis players.
The 1971 SPG team travelled by boat – the first contingent left on the ‘Bodmer’ a week before the opening ceremony on 8 September. This boat sailed via Mauke. The remaining participants left on the newly-acquired ‘Manutai’ on 4 September. Huge numbers turned out to farewell the team.
“I remember the boat breaking down on the way to Tahiti, and one of the rugby boys being singled out to cook one of the meals for the group during the boat trip. I think both boats ended up arriving in Tahiti at the same time,” says Hosking.
The team stayed at a school in Pape’ete and Hosking says they trained at a ground which was near the sea.
The rugby side played its first game against New Caledonia on 9 September. Despite trailing at halftime 3-5, the team went on to win the match 27-8.
The second match against Western Samoa was lost – winger Ngatokorua Takau dotting down twice for the Cooks.
The Cook Islands then had to account for Wallis & Futuna in the semi-finals – winning 29-18 before going down in the gold medal playoff to Western Samoa (9-23).
Despite the scoreline, the Cooks actually held its own for most of the match against a team which played neighbours Fiji and Tonga on a regular basis.
“After our first game [against Western Samoa] we actually dominated that game [the final] in the forwards. It was just a few defensive lapses which let the Samoans in. I still have very vivid memories of that game – we were very similar teams. We didn’t have any complaints about the refs and there were no problems with our team.”
It was a coincidence that the Cook Islands and Western Samoan rugby teams both toured New Zealand for the first time five years later in 1976.
If coming second was hard enough for the rugby players, watching one of the soccer team’s games wasn’t pleasant for Hosking.
“It was a bad experience for me – our team got thrashed by 30 goals!”
Huge crowds again welcomed back the team upon arrival at Avatiu wharf. And a huge umukai was put on for the team at Constitution Park on 4 October after the second group of participants arrived back home two days earlier.
The 1971 trip opened sporting doors between Tahiti and Cook Islands with international exchanges involving codes such as boxing, rugby, soccer, volleyball and oe vaka taking place since then. A huge Tahitian contingent was also present for the 1985 and 2009 Mini Games.
The 1971 silver medal was a first for Cook Islands rugby and this was to be only one of two won at a 15s competition at a full South Pacific Games.
The Cooks lost out in the SPG gold medal match to New Caledonia in 1987 – the hosts avenging their Mini Games loss in Rarotonga two years previously.
However by this time, as they were invited to participate in the inaugural Rugby World Cup held in New Zealand and Australia in 1987, Fiji and Tonga curtailed participation at the SPG 15s competition.
Western Samoa attended and won the SPG rugby gold medal in Port Moresby in 1991. Because of the nuclear test boycotts in 1995, only two teams fronted up in Pape’ete – New Caledonia beating Tahiti in a two-match series to win gold.
The sevens game replaced 15-a-side as the rugby programme at the Mini Games (1997) and Pacific Games (1999). The only medal won by Cooks to date was a silver during the 2003 games in Fiji.
At the 2009 Mini Games held in Rarotonga, both Fiji and Samoa sent their top teams with the latter triumphing in a hotly-contested final at BCI Stadium – just days after a deadly tsunami struck parts of Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa.