Cook Islands coach Tony Iro believes the World Cup 9s will be an ideal preparation for their upcoming World Cup qualifier against the USA as the Pacific nation strives to become the “new Tonga”.
The Cook Islands will meet the Hawks in Jacksonville, Florida on November 16 for the final place in the 2021 World Cup and are using the Nines tournament to help prepare for the play-off, with Alex Glenn, Brad Taikarangi, Tepai Moeroa, Anthong Gelling and Steven Marsters in the squad.
Another six-to-eight current or former NRL players are set to join them for the USA trip, possibly including Dylan Napa, and should the Kukis qualify for the World Cup they could potentially field a team to rival the likes of Tonga, Samoa and Fiji.
“We would like to be the new Tonga and one day get all of our best players together,” Iro said.
Other players eligible for Cook Islands include Cowboys-bound centre Esan Marsters, Raiders duo Charnze Nicol-Klokstad and Jordan Rapana, Roosters Joey Manu and Zane Tetevano, Rabbitohs halfback Tory Dargan, Catalans second-rower Kenny Edwards and St Helens pair Zeb Taia and Dominique Peyroux.
Nikol-Klokstad, Rapana, Manu and Tetevano were named in the New Zealand squad for upcoming Tests against Australia and Great Britain, while Marsters was ruled out with injury.
However, most have previously represented Cook Islands and Iro would gladly welcome them if they were available.
“Esan has already played for us and if he is not in the Kiwis plans then we would gladly take him,” Iro said. “There are a few other boys like that.
“The biggest thing for us is qualifying for the World Cup in 2021 and then giving the boys the opportunity if they want to represent again. There are a lot of boys out there with Cook Island heritage.”
Taikarangi, who played for the Kiwis at the 2017 World Cup after Cook Islands failed to qualify, said the nation needed more regular matches to retain the star players.
Besides June’s World Cup qualifier against South Africa, their previous Test was more than two years ago against Papua New Guinea.
“It is very hard to get a squad together when we are only playing one game every couple of years,” Taikarangi said.
“We have got two games next year and then hopefully the World Cup after that if we qualify so it is looking brighter but I think we could field a very good team if we had more games.”
With the USA also in the World Cup 9s, the Kukis will be keeping a close eye on how they perform but Iro’s main focus is ensuring his players are aware of what is at stake in the next month.
“This has come at a real opportune time for us, just to get the bulk of the squad together and get to know each other a bit more,” he said.
“For 80 per cent of the blokes here they haven’t touched a footy or had a run around for about a month so it will be a reminder to them that footy is closer than they think, especially with the match we have got coming up.
“They have had their break so now they need to focus on the next month and getting themselves as ready as they can for the challenge.”
The Kukis also have some young players in their squad, including Warriors teenager Kayal Iro, the son of former Manly great Kevin Iro.
“I played with him for the first time this year against South Africa and I didn’t even know Kevin had a son old enough to play, so to run out with him and see what he could do was pretty exciting,” Taikarangi said
“It is pretty exciting for Cook Islands rugby league because we got some good young players coming through. A lot of these boys haven’t played NRL but they are going to be there in a couple of years and this is a good stepping stone for them.”
For ticket and travel packages for the Downer Rugby League World Cup 9s Sydney 2019, head to nrl.com/tickets.