Samoa players are bracing themselves for a Tongan backlash on Saturday after Kayal Iro, whose father Kevin put Cook Islands on the rugby league map 20 years ago, helped the Pacific nation to a shock win in the opening round of World Cup 9s matches.
Led by Parramatta utility Brad Taikarangi, the Cook Islands stunned Tonga 30-7 at Bankwest Stadium on Friday night to set up a series of mouth-watering round of desperate clashes in the so-called “pool of death”, which also includes Samoa and Fiji.
With Samoa beating Fiji 32-17, the Bati and Tonga must now win both matches on Saturday to have any chance of advancing to the semi-finals of the inaugural tournament.
Iro, who scored his team’s first two tries, said the Cook Islands were adopting a nothing-to-lose attitude against their more fancied opponents as they look ahead to next month’s 2021 World Cup qualifying clash with the United States in Florida.
“We were ready to take them hard, but I am just stoked for the good win,” the 18-year-old Warriors back said of Tonga. “I am proud. The boys did really well.”
Not initially named in the squad to play Tonga, Iro was called up an hour before kick off after captain Alex Glenn succumbed to a groin injury and was ruled out of the tournament.
Kayal said his father Kevin, who played 34 Tests for New Zealand before leading Cook Islands at the 2000 World Cup and later having a stint as coach, would have been proud.
“He is back home in the Cook Islands,” Kayal said. “He had a few Tests for the Cooks, I think he retired professionally but he still played for the Cooks after that.”
The Kukis will now face Samoa and Fiji on Saturday, with wins in both matches guaranteeing the Tony Iro-coached team a place in the semi-finals.
After playing Cook Islands, Samoa will meet Tonga and Canberra centre Joey Leilua said he was expecting a response from the World Cup semi-finalists.
“Tonga is a tough side so we need to make sure we are on our game tomorrow,” Leilua said. “They are just like Fiji, they are big and strong so we need to turn up and do our jobs.”
Leilua said the key to Samoa’s comfortable defeat of Fiji was an 88 per cent completion rate, compared to just 57 per cent by the Bati, who committed ball handling errors in three of their seven sets.
“Fiji is a superstar team and we never thought we were going to perform that well but what we said to each other was turn up and we did that,” Leilua said.
“It was a good performance. I am proud of the boys, we hung in there and we wanted to make sure we didn’t let our team-mates down. I think it comes down to possession, if you hold onto the ball things will happen for you.”