“We were winning 7-5, but we lost in the last minute, they scored on the last play,” 32-year-old Willis says proudly.
His other proudest moment is his team’s 21-0 loss to Fiji at the 2019 Pacific Games, where the team has just finished their first day of competition. The team captain takes pride in their efforts against the defending champions, and regards the loss as a win for Cook Islands Sevens.
“That’s awesome, they’re the world champions,” Willis says.
It’s a Friday night in Samoa and the team are resting after producing some outstanding results on day one. Willis is sitting outside the team’s quarters at the athlete’s village on a humid Samoan night, chatting with teammates and waiting for a rub down from the team physio. The familiar smell of eucalyptus waffs through the air as the players get their muscles tended to after a tough day’s competing.
Willis smiles as he greets me, the large gash across the left side of his forehead squirms as he invites me to take a seat with them. The cut is yet another battle scar illustrating Willis’ willingness to put his body, and job, on the line for his team and country.
“If you get a really bad concussion, your pilot’s license gets stripped for ten years,” Willis says as he stares off into the empty night sky.
Not only does Willis captain the national men’s sevens team, he also captains planes for local airline Air Rarotonga, a job he began training for at the age of just 18. He laughs about his interview for acceptance into Ardmore Flying School, in Auckland, saying: “I remember walking up to the car and Ewan (Smith, owner of Air Rarotonga) was like ’hey, go and put a shirt on’, because I was dressed in shorts and jandals. So, I went and put a shirt and tie on, but still had my shorts and jandals on – Ewan said to me, ’you are a coconut wrapped in white skin mate’”.
Willis is a resident of Arorangi in Rarotonga and a born and bred Cook Islander. His dad Sean also flies planes for a living and Stephen knew he would eventually end up being a pilot. However, his father encouraged him to pursue his athletic endeavours, before worrying about becoming a pilot.
“My dad said to me to go as far as I can with my sports, flying can come later.”
It was also Stephen’s dad who encouraged him to play sport in the first place, initially enrolling him as a student in a soccer academy that was being held in Rarotonga.
“My dad started me in soccer just for the free boots, so I could go and play rugby after,” says Willis, grinning cheekily as he reminisces on his early days as a sportsmen.
However, soccer gave Willis more than just a free pair of boots, as he was awarded a sporting scholarship from Auckland Grammar School. He attended the prestigious school for two years, before deciding to become a pilot. During his training, he even played club soccer for Waitakere United F.C. and represented the Cook Islands in football at the 2007 Pacific Games.
But Willis always knew he wanted to represent the Cook Islands in rugby Sevens. He had previously been training with the squad but says rumours of coaching staff choosing to include mostly overseas based players, as opposed to locals, threw him off.
“I was training with them back then, but after I heard those rumours, I kind of lost interest”.
It’s time for Willis to lie down on the massage table, the physio asks him what needs attention, and Willis replies that the right side of his neck is stiff. She begins to kink out the knots as we continue our conversation.
Willis explains that he finally caught a break and was named in the national team in 2016.
“I got into the Cook Islands Sevens team when Vaivase Samania started as coach,” he says.
Samania took up his post as coach the same year Willis made his debut and Willis says it was the beginning of a culture change amongst the team.
“It’s good that Vase is getting all these young boys into Sevens. What he has done over the years through his coaching is build a strong team culture - Every morning we have our devotion. We have a group of boys that does the bible reading, a group of boys that does the haka and pe’e”.
Willis has now been the captain of the team for three years and sees his role in the leadership group as being that of a “family man on and off the field”.
“I have four kids, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to not make training,” he says.
Leading up to a tournament, Willis says a typical day begins at 4:30am, with team training starting at 5:30am. At 7:00am, the teams goes to Trader Jacks for a quick swim, before Willis rushes home, takes his kids to school, and then gets to work by 8:30am for a 9:00am flight. He usually finishes around 3:00pm, races home to see his family, and then trains from 5:00pm through to 7:30pm.
“So yeah its quite full on” he says.
Apart from the time commitments, Willis says the hardest challenge of being a part of the team is the fact that no players receive pay.
“We are doing it for the love of the game,” he says.
“Some of the boys work two or three jobs just to put food on the table, some fly from New Zealand every second week at their own expense to train.”
But Willis is proud of his team and their commitment. He expects nothing less. Willis is a leader to his teammates and a role model for younger generations. His commitment to the game is undeniable and he will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most successful, yet humble captains the Cook Islands Sevens team has ever had.
-Liam Ratana in Apia, Samoa