When Simiona Teiotu was appointed interim president of Cook Islands Rugby Union about a year ago, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.
But like many other challenges in his life, Teiotu decided to take the bull by the horns.
He survived. So much so that the union in its annual general meeting decided to officially appoint him to the post on a one-year term.
Now Teiotu has another mammoth task ahead of him: to navigate the national rugby union through and beyond Covid-19.
Already the pandemic has caused major disruptions to rugby unions globally.
Many top rugby unions have made some heavy cutbacks on expenses after cancellations of competitions led to a downturn in revenue.
USA Rugby has even filed for bankruptcy following indefinite suspension of sanctioned activities and, in turn, loss of income streams caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to its existing financial challenges.
Finance remains an ongoing challenge for Cook Islands Rugby Union but Teiotu says Covid-19 has done little damage to its coffers.
“We don’t have such revenue streams like international rugby unions. Ours is fixed income from grants and sponsors which we hope won’t be affected.”
The national rugby union operates on a meagre $100,000 budget annually.
All officials, except one, are volunteers, and the funds are solely for running the local competitions and sending teams overseas.
The major disruption Covid-19 has caused to the national body is its domestic competitions including the pre-season Sevens tournaments, which should have started by now.
The union is hoping to kick off its domestic 15s season early next month but they are still waiting for a green light from the health ministry Te Marae Ora, which has banned contact sports.
“Since April 2020 we have communicated with Health Secretary Dr Aumea Herman asking for a directive for full-contact sport such as rugby union,” says Teiotu.
“The plan is to start our domestic first weekend of July when the additional flights increases to address any serious injuries. Furthermore advice from the Te Marae Ora states that rugby is a close contact sport with risk of spreading respiratory saliva and mucous – through tackles, scrums, sharing drink bottles, spitting etc.
“If the virus comes through the border, an infected player will spread this to the whole team and opposition. Cook Islands Rugby needs to demonstrate how it will reduce spread of risk among players.”
Teiotu says they have also agreed to change the format for the much anticipated International Sevens tournament later in the year to a local event because of Covid-19.
Teiotu says Covid-19 may have come as a blessing in disguise for the rugby union here.
It has shifted their focus to local competition, and grassroots development.
Cook Islands Rugby has already implemented its Rippa rugby programme which has primary school students participating. Health ministry has allowed Rippa rugby as it has very limited contact between players.
“Since May our rugby union development staff together with our Quick Rip/ Healthy Living Sport4Life programme led by development manager Ben Koteka,” says Teiotu.
“There are now 700 students that has gone through the Rippa Rugby Programme within our primary school level across the island. To date the feedback from schools has been positive considering that our kids just want to go out there and play some real actives rugby game despite the Covid-19 restrictions.
“Through our Oceania Rugby partnership, they have sent through some new Rippa Rugby Union rules to suit our climate because of Covid-19 environment.”
This programme also includes a theory part that all school students have to go through. It focuses on healthy living, educating children to drink and eat the right food.
Teiotu says the healthy living aspect was included to battle obesity. Cook Islands has one of the highest obesity rates in the Pacific.
“The aim is to get our kids the right mind-set when it comes to drinking and eating healthy products.
“We are hoping when they move to the college level they will continue that same mind-set and make the right decision when it comes to health and also representing our country in international competitions.”
Teiotu says this month the national rugby development officers will be going to Tereora College to continue the Rippa programme, extending the total participation to 1000 students.
“With Rippa rugby capturing our primary school and college level here in Rarotonga, there is a need to revisit Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro as well as the northern group islands.”
When Teiotu took over the Cook Islands Rugby Union as interim president in July last year, he also accepted the challenge to adopt a new constitution which brings the national body in line with the regulations being followed by regional and international bodies.
Former president Sean Smith, a lawyer by profession, worked hard on a revised Cook Islands Rugby Union constitution and a Four-Year Strategic Plan.
The two documents were endorsed and accepted at the recent annual general meeting.
Teiotu says there will be further discussions with all clubs on Rarotonga, Pa Enua and also the New Zealand and Australia associations on the constitution and the strategic plan.
He acknowledges Smith’s initiative and is keen to work with him to implement those documents.
“These two documents are also in-line with the current Oceania Rugby and World Rugby. Come 2021, Cook Islands Rugby Union will follow and comply with the new guidelines and principles.”
The new constitution will make rugby union more inclusive and engage more with the community to improve the profile of the sport.
“The new Constitution will entail patron, president, three vice presidents and for one of the vice presidents specifically filled by a woman. There will also be an auditor, appeal tribunal, judiciary member and three community members in the executive.
“The duration for these positions will be four-year term as opposed to one-year term we follow now. This is to ensure consistency and give time to new executives to fully implement and achieve their plans.”
For now, Teiotu’s vision is to improve the performance locally and build a stronger foundation for a better future.
Ultimately, he wants Cook Islands Rugby among the best in the Pacific region.
“Empowering our young ones both male and female on all part of rugby, enhancing our administration, coaching, refereeing, medical and education pathway development are the key goals.
“But we cannot achieve this overnight and alone. We need time and support. It’s something we need to work together to achieve.”
Cook Islands Rugby Union executives 2020-2021: President Simiona Teiotu; Vice-President Charlie Hosking; Secretary William Taripo; Treasurer Anthony Turua; Assistant treasurer Ashleigh Willis; Development manager Ben Koteka.