The side, which lost to Papua New Guinea 0-32 in the 5th-6th place playoff, managed to book their ticket to the mecca of Sevens rugby after beating Tonga 12-5 in the 5th-8th place playoff semi-final on Friday.
Team manager Simon Iopu said their primary goal going into this year’s Oceania Sevens was to qualify for whichever tournament available to them.
“We are proud that we qualified for Hong Kong, the spiritual home of rugby Sevens and a tournament last graced by the Cook Islands in 2014.”
“We are also pleased that we finished second in the tournament of the second tier teams effectively moving us to number two in the Oceania II rankings behind PNG and ahead of Tonga.”
Iopu said they entered into the championship with a simple game plan.
“Our system of attacking each game was as simple as can be, take it a game at a time, except that each game had to be the game of our lives our risk being left behind in the Bowl punch out.”
After each game, coach Vase Samania and the team dissected and analysed parts of the game to adjust their structures.
Iopu said although the opening win against Nauru was a morale-boosting start to the tournament, the following two matches against giants New Zealand and eventual winner Fiji were simply a level beyond them.
“There were slow starts and a disadvantage in height, leaked turnovers and tries in both matches but we steadied the ship against New Zealand later in the game to hold them back to a 36 point end of game score,” he said.
“Fiji were just polarising and as much as we tried, their strike weapons in the number 1-12 jerseys were just too slick to contain.
“These two teams went on to play out the final, with Fiji walloping the Kiwis 26-0. One thing was clear: You can only score points if you have the ball in hand for more than one phase of play.”
The match against Tonga in the 5th-8th place playoff semis was the highlight of the national team’s campaign in the tournament for many reasons, Iopu said.
He said bad weather including lightning and thunder resulted in the match being postponed for around an hour.
Then it was called off entirely, but was then back on again, he said.
“All of the managers were informed that all preliminary finals, including our highly-anticipated return match, was cancelled and only the finals for 5th and 6th placing and 1st and 2nd placings would be played, which effectively cancelled out our chances of qualifying for the RWC (Rugby World Cup), Commonwealth Games and three circuit events,” Iopu said.
“The team was confused, bewildered and so disappointed. We were just packing up to go home when the call came (by the grace of God), that our game was back on again and we had to take the field in 15 minutes.
“By this time they had warmed up and warmed down five or so times so they were primed to go, with a determination to win knowing they had just been given a miracle pass from the heavens.”
Iopu said beating Tonga was no easy feat after the Tongans scored the first try early in the first half.
But with an organised defensive line and commitment to tackle, the Stephen Willis-skippered side bounced back with a try to lead 7-5.
“The boys scored 12 of the best points they’ve scored all campaign, not because they were flashy but because they were winning points which came with determination and a willingness to make best of the second chance given to them by God earlier.
“The reward for winning this game was qualification to the Hong Kong Sevens tournament in April of 2018.”
The change in the match schedule due to the weather saw Cook Islands’ rest time to their next game cut short 50 minutes.
PNG had a solid three hours of break and that reflected in their win against the national side.
“Against PNG, the boys showed heart and courage, but the shift up in gear proved too far a climb for a tired team who had spent the last three hours cockadoodling between the warm up pitch, to the home tents, to the stadium and back again,” Iopu said.
“PNG was ruthless and deserved qualification to the Rugby World Cup and Commonwealth Games in 2018, eventually taking out the top spot in the second tier teams.”
Iopu said next month’s Pacific Mini Games was another opportunity for the team to qualify for the Sevens Rugby World Cup, but the team would not attend the games in Vanuatu due to a lack of funds.
“There is one spot available and all of the Oceania teams will attend the tournament hoping to win that final spot.
“If we were to attend, there is high chance we would meet Tonga in the final as long as we win our lead-up games, and we all know we can beat Tonga.”
The Cook Islands women’s side finished in fifth place at the Oceania Sevens, behind New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and PNG.