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New rugby president hits the ground running

Tuesday April 10, 2018 Written by Published in Rugby Union
Recently appointed CIRU president Sean Smith is ready to take rugby in a new direction. 18040926a Recently appointed CIRU president Sean Smith is ready to take rugby in a new direction. 18040926a

Recently-appointed Cook Islands Rugby Union (CIRU) president Sean Smith comes into the role during one of the most exciting times for the local sporting scene.


Although he was talented enough to represent his country at the highest level as a front rower, Smith said it had never crossed his mind previously about playing for the Cook Islands.

Born and raised locally, he was schooled on Rarotonga and Manihiki before moving to Auckland to attend King’s College.

After leaving college in 2008, he moved to Otago University, starting off on a Bachelor of Arts, studying politics and philosophy.

In 2014, he was given the opportunity to study at law school, something he said he couldn’t turn down.

During his time in the South Island, he captained a couple of rugby sides, and also turned out for local representative teams, but Smith simply saw rugby as a weekend away from study.

However, when the chance came around, he filled out a form when he saw an advertisement looking for Cook Islands players. His older brother Francis was already an established member of the national side.

“He was putting the pressure on me, and I thought that I might as well give it a go, and I made my test debut last year. Rugby has been there for a long time, but I never committed to anything professional,” Smith says.

His debut, which is possibly his last match after he snapped his forearm a week later, was the infamous 2017 Tahiti test on Constitution Day, which the Cook Islands lost 13-9.

Although the result has since been overturned, due to Tahiti fielding two ineligible French players, Smith says the loss still hurts.

“It’s been bittersweet – bitter for a long time and sweet for a short time. But hopefully we can look back at that and see where we could have done better.

“I’m sure a lot of the players have had a lot of time to think about it. They got under our skin, and to their credit it worked. We reacted a bit too much to what they were doing, and not enough on what we needed to do.”

The Tahiti ruling means that the Cook Islands still have hopes of qualifying for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo.

Smith says it is a fantastic opportunity, one that was announced around the same time as his selection as president.

He says it was “overwhelming”, to be named in the role, especially with the immediate focus being put on the test window and last week’s Hong Kong qualifying series.

In less than three months, on June 30, the Cook Islands will play either Hong Kong, Malaysia or South Korea. The opponent will be the winner of the Asian Championship, which begins at the end of this month.

“It would be a different story if we’d won in August, but the reality is that we have to work under a short time frame,” Smith says.

“It’ll be tough but exciting, and given the time frame, it does put us in a tight spot in terms of who’s available.”

Although there are a number of Cook Islanders contracted around the world, teams typically require more than three months’ notice to release players.

However, Smith says a handful of overseas players have expressed their interest and are willing to make the commitment, but the core squad will be locals.

“That comes down to availability, and all being in one place, and that’s the good thing about having the programme based here.”

Trials for the squad will be held in Rarotonga over the coming weeks, while the management and coaching positions are expected to be filled shortly.

Moving forward, Smith, who is now a staff solicitor at Little and Matysik, has a five to 10-year plan that will have aim to have a strong structure from top to bottom.

“With the previous administration, we felt there was not a clear direction that they were taking. They operated within their limits, but I think at times they put too many eggs in too many baskets,” Smith explained.

“Whereas we can start focusing on a certain few. For example, the local scene needs to improve. We definitely have the capacity to improve, and that’s from under eights right up to the seniors.

“The grassroots - you have to start there because you can’t pump out a high quality team without a solid base.”

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