The newly appointed Cook Islands rugby league coach Karmichael Hunt. Main photo courtesy of Zain Mohammed /QRL/23100924
Having been robbed of the chance to represent his Cook Island heritage on the playing field two years ago, Karmichael Hunt is relishing his new role as the country’s head coach.
During a brief return to the NRL in 2021, Hunt was
convinced by his then teammate Alex Glenn to head away to that year’s World Cup
with the Cook Islands, a nation he qualified for through his mum Matera who
hails from the island of Rarotonga.
But when the pandemic caused the tournament to be
postponed, and Hunt stepped away from top-level footy at the end of that
season, dreams of a final fling on the Test scene disappeared.
So earlier this year, during a season in which he won
the Queensland Cup’s coach of the year award for his efforts with Souths Logan,
Hunt jumped at the opportunity when the nation's now former coach, Tony Iro,
approached him about taking over.
“This is a very special chance to represent half of my
heritage,” Hunt, a former professional New Zealand rugby footballer who last
played for the Brisbane Broncos in the National Rugby League, told NRL.com.
“I don’t think it’s very well known that I’m a Cook
Islander at all. People know that I am of New Zealand descent and pledged
allegiance to Australia, but this is about being able to reconnect with my
heritage and my history.
“Mum is a Cook Islander and I used to get shipped over
there every school holidays when I was young. It was a second home to me
“I came close to playing when I ventured back into
league as a player before I retired in 2021.
“I was on my last legs and ‘Sponge’ [Iro] and Alex
Glenn were talking to me about it. There was an opportunity there, but I don’t
know how much help I would have been at that point!”
Cook Islands Rugby League president Charles Carlson
said they were delighted to have Hunt on board for the next three years. Iro
will remain in the national team set up as technical advisor.
“We are delighted to have Karmichael on board and,
especially being a Cook Islander coaching at this level of competition. It is
important to bring him on board now as we prepare for the World Cup qualifying
possibly in 2025 to secure one of the last two spots for World Cup 2026,”
Hunt will kick off his tenure with a clash against
Papua New Guinea at the Santos National Football Stadium in Port Moresby on
October 15, before playing Fiji a week later at the same venue.
With their path to the 2026 World Cup now confirmed to
include taking part in the inaugural IRL World Series in 2025, Hunt has named a
Pacific Championships squad with a mix of youth and experienced campaigners.
Former Kiwi internationals Brad Takairangi and Zane Tetevano
headline the group along with promising Rabbitohs forward Davvy Moale, while
with the help of Iro – who will remain on the staff in an advisory role –
they’ve found players like Esom and Kadiyae Ioka from the Auckland club scene.
“There were a few players we would have liked to have
picked but weren’t available, so alongside those experienced guys there are a
group from that level below the NRL,” Hunt said.
“Sponge knows the squad inside out and we have been on
Zoom calls every week talking. He has given me the lead on all footy aspects
and is helping me navigate everything.
“We’re looking forward to it. Papua New Guinea first
up over there will be a huge challenge.”
Carlson said with 10 debutantes in this squad of 21
“obviously he (Hunt) is looking to develop a bigger pool of players moving
“The Cooks have lacked international test matches in
the past and are grateful for the opportunity to be part of the Pacific
Championship. The Cooks is also guaranteed to be part of the Pacific Championship
2024, therefore strengthening its position prep for the qualifying round.”
Cook Islands Aitu squad: Tevin Arona, Rhys Dakin, Esom Ioka, Kadiyae Ioka, Kayal Iro, Makahesi Makatoa, Justin Estall-Makirere, Steven Marsters, Esan Marsters, Alvin Maungaati, Davvy Moale, Takai Mokohar, Malachi Morgan, Rua Ngatikaura, Pride Pettersen-Robati, Lucky Pokipoki, Reuben Porter, William Samuel, Brad Takairangi, Zane Tetevano, Isaiah Cooper-Tetevano.