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Continuity key for Cooks

Thursday 8 July 2021 | Written by RNZ | Published in Rugby Union, Sports

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Continuity key for Cooks
Cook Islands men’s rugby coach Nathan Robinson. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Vinnie Wylie/21070722

The Cook Islands men’s rugby team are taking plenty of encouragement from their first hit-out in three years.

The national side was beaten 31-24 by New Zealand provincial champions Tasman on Tuesday, after conceding the match-winning try in the final play of the game.

Head coach Nathan Robinson was pleased with the performance of his players off the back of only two full training sessions.

“It was really good for us to get a good gauge of where we are as individuals and where we are as a squad,” he said.

“To be fair we weren’t really looking at the result but to come away this close was good for us. Coming into this camp in general we got a lot of bang for our buck, so we take a lot out of this which is really, really good.”

The Oceania Men’s Rugby Championship was cancelled earlier this year because of Covid-19, with the Cook Islands advancing to the next stage of Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifying based on their world ranking.

The squad only assembled together on Saturday, with 23 players taking the field against the Makos, including five based in Rarotonga.

The bulk of the players were making their debut for the national team and Robinson – a former Cook Islands international in sevens and fifteens – admitted it wasn’t just the team’s jerseys that were green.

“We’ve scratched the surface in New Zealand and in Raro and we’ve got a lot of new boys so that’s the key for us: obviously we’ve got an eye on the test match in a fortnight (against Samoa or Tonga) but obviously an eye on the future as well,” he reflected.

“We’ve only got three boys over the age of 28 in the side so we’re building depth and some continuity going forward for the national side.”

One of the new faces was former Highlanders and Southland loose forward Tupou Sopoaga, who debuted alongside his younger brother Toka Sopoaga and cousin James Kora.

The 29-year-old also represented the Cook Islands in rugby league and said it meant a lot to represent his Pacific heritage.

“My mum’s full Cook Islander, my dad’s full Samoan and that’s the same situation with a lot of other boys around the world,” he said.

“They might be full Tongan or full Samoan or full Fijian but at the end of the day New Zealand gave us the opportunity. We’d love the rules to loosen (for eligibility) but ultimately we’re just grateful we can use New Zealand as a platform to get a gig somewhere in New Zealand or overseas.”

Despite a hectic build-up, including a number of players being unavailable and a last-minute venue change, Robinson believed the team has a good base to build from.

“I liked the physicality. We’ve got a few big bodies in that forward pack and we carried really, really well,” he said.

“As the game evolved we got into our shape a lot more better, so we stuck in it and the boys showed a lot more heart.

“We come a little bit undone in that backline a little bit – just run a bit short of numbers – but we will get better on that and that will be some of our work-ons.”

Tasman head coach Andrew Goodman said his players were made to work hard for their win.

“It was a competitive game. They were physical and really dangerous with that turnover ball.”

The Cook Islands squad will reassemble in Auckland ahead of next weekend’s clash with the New Zealand Under 20s, and Robinson said further reinforcements were on their way.

“We will probably bring in six to eight boys (who) are on the fringe of looking at coming in,” he said.

“At the moment they’re training with their NPC teams and in Australia so we will scratch our heads and see what we can do with getting a squad going forward.”

Although Covid-19 has put a small spanner in the works.

“We’ve got a couple of boys who are part of the (Melbourne) Rebels squad at the moment, with the Super season just gone, so we’ve just got to be mindful of the virus with the lockdowns at the moment, so we're just chasing up a bit of comms on that at the moment.”

After facing the New Zealand Under 20s the Cook Islands will round out a busy month on 24 July against whoever loses the World Cup qualification playoff between Samoa and Tonga.

The winner of that match will then advance to the Asia/Pacific Playoff for a place in the 2023 World Cup in France.

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