Stephen Willis of Arorangi Bears takes on a Tupapa Panthers player in round two of the Raro Cars Rugby League competition last week. The national competition this year has five clubs compared to seven in the past few seasons. 20021725
The rugby codes are fighting to survive the flight of young Cook Islanders overseas and their remaining players being pillaged by football – but like these islands, they say, they are resilient.
Vase Samania is known for his sterling leadership in the local sporting fraternity.
The Samoan has called the Cook Islands his home after moving here more than 20 years ago. Samania represented the national team in both rugby 7s and 15s. He also captained and coached the national 7s team in international events, including the prestigious Hong Kong 7s.
In the domestic scene, Samania has been regarded as a warhorse for his home club TKV (Takuvaine), especially in the rugby union competition.
As a player and coach, he guided TKV to become a dominant force in the Rarotonga Club 15s competition. The team also became a top bet in the 7s competitions.
Samania, like many other local reps, has now moved to greener pastures in search for a better future for his family.
And his departure, to some extent, has affected Takuvaine Sports Club which has now pulled out of the national rugby league competition and is struggling to stay alive in the domestic union competitions.
Depopulation, especially the migration of the working age population to New Zealand, has been an ongoing challenge for the Cook Islands.
According to migrationpolicy.org, in the first half of the 20th century the Cook Islands population rose from 8213 to 15079. The population continued to rise, reaching a peak of 21,322, in 1971, before taking a nosedive.
The latest census conducted in 2016 had the population at around 17,500. But this figure includes a considerable visitor proportion, and the “normally resident category” is estimated as being around 13,000.
The rapid decline in the local population has raised questions over national viability in many sectors.
Sports is not spared.
Two of the leading sports in the Cook Islands – rugby league and union – are struggling with team shortages in their national competitions.
From six clubs, the domestic Rarotonga Club 15s competition is down to five, with Takuvaine Reds struggling to make up the numbers for most of their weekly matches.
The rugby league competition, which had been on the rise lately, suffered a major setback after two clubs – Takuvaine Warriors and Aitutaki Sharks – failed to make the cut due to lack of players.
Charles Carlson, the chairman of Cook Islands Rugby League Association, says migration play a huge part, not only on player base but across all sectors in the Cook Islands.
“We just have to look around at our labour force to realise the large number of foreign workers on the island replacing our Cook Islands people that have chosen to migrate overseas,” says Carlson.
“Sports is a good indicator of our population at the start of the year and we can see this by the number of grades we have in the competition.”
Vase Samania agrees players moving overseas is one of the main reasons for the decline.
But he also points to lack of innovative ideas from national federations as another downfall.
“Most rugby players have families to feed, loans to be paid in every week. If you get injured that’s it for you … who will put bread on the table and pay the loan?
“My club Takuvaine is a small club. For me to keep the club going, I have to think outside of the box and that’s why you see Samoan and Fijian players in our club.
“It is an expensive exercise but you got to do what you can to keep rugby league and union alive in the club.”
Samania says the governing body needs to come up with realistic plans to keep domestic competitions alive and lively. “Rugby union and league are not dying off, the main body needs to think hard and find new solution to solve the problems.
“That’s the other reason why I was pushing hard for our men’s 7s team to qualify for international tournaments, so we can attract more players to play rugby.
“I even suggested at our meetings to set a programme every two years for our national 15s team to tour overseas, either New Zealand or Australia, to give our local players something to play for.”
Cook Islands Rugby Union acting president Simiona Teiotu says competition from other sports, especially football, is affecting player base in other contact sports.
Football gets way more funding from its international body compared to other sports in the country.
“Football has taken all interest of players from age group to senior level. They poured a lot of cash prizes, extra funds for the club to assist them managing their respective clubs, administration and maintaining clubs field,” says Teiotu.
“Football clubs don’t even have to fundraise for international competitions, compared to wider sports codes in the country today. They have a good infrastructure like the stadium, sports academy and new programmes to attract the players. They have the necessary funding to achieve all these.
“But we try our best with whatever funding we have and support from the sponsors to improve the profile of rugby in the country.”
Charles Carlson says they cannot solely put the blame on lack of players. The challenge comes down to good leadership and good planning within the clubs and village to make things happen, he says.
“I did a presentation at our annual general meeting about having a vision, writing the vision down, and stepping out in faith to implement that vision with the hope of stirring our club leaders to step up in the year 2020.”
Last year was massive for Cook Islands Rugby League starting off with the League Nines, national competition, two World Cup qualifying games in Australia and Florida, USA, Pacific Games and the World Cup 9s commitment.
“To run these tournaments and participate in this regional and international events costs a lot of money but we did it,” says Carlson.
“Perhaps that took the focus away from our preparation leading up to 2020 and I must admit we did struggle at the start of the year with our League Nines leading into our national competition.”
Despite a decline in team numbers in the men’s competition, Carlson says the 2020 season also has some positives.
“We got five premier grades in our national competition 2020 year and we also started the women’s competition this year for the first time so the game goes on.
“We had issues with the Aitutaki Sharks and TKV but have met with the Sharks executives to map out a way forward and had discussions with various members in the TKV camp to get them back on track comes 2021.
“Cook Islands Rugby League is confident 2021 will be a big year for us especially having both our women and men playing in the Rugby League World Cup 2021 in England.”
Carlson knows about preparing for tough times – he’s also Emergency Management Director in the Office of the Prime Minister.
“I guess it’s a bit like our cyclone season having to cope with some stormy weather and rough seas – but I’m confident we are resilient enough to combat these challenges that comes our way and bounce back better than before.”