This week with a major Fusion conference, work and travel overseas I haven’t been able to keep on top of thins as usual. I apologise for this and I hope that by Sunday I will be back on board covering all things Rugby League. However not that there hasn’t been a lot happening I have been fortunate enough to have one of my regular readers of the site travel recently to a far corner of the Rugby league globe, the Cook Island. Cheyne Maher has been kind enough to write a summary of the experiences with Cook Island Rugby League.
The Eels and the Panthers enjoy one of Rugby Leagues great rivalries – but we’re not talking about the western Sydney versions of the NRL.
Rather the Avatiu Eels and Tupapa Panthers who recently met in the Cook Islands grand final for the third consecutive year.
And once again the Eels emerged victorious, to successfully defend their premiership with a 20-12 victory.
But they didn’t have it all their own way….
The Eels who have played in the last six premier grade grand finals (winning in 2007 and 2010), lost their first game of the season against their neighbours Arrorangi Bears – but won every game since leading up to the decider.
The Panthers had a tougher run to get to the big one, but demonstrated their skills by thrashing the second ranked Ngatangiia Sea Eagles 36-0 in the semi-final and so the scene was set for a classic contest between the two powerhouse clubs.
With beautiful sunny conditions at BCI stadium, which is in the heart of “Eels” territory, there were supporters all around town wearing the Eels singlets right from the outset, partly helped by the presence of two of the clubs junior grades on grand final day.
The Eels opened up an early lead with two early penalty conversions from Bobby Hansen to lead 4-0. The Panthers got on the board with a penalty goal to Turori Matutu, before Hansen scored the first try of the game when he slipped through Tupapas’ defence to extend his teams lead to 10-2.
However the Panthers rallied and hit back with two tries to take the lead. Firstly Matutu scored his sides first four pointer, before playing a big part in the next. He kicked the ball into open space behind the Eels defence, which the speedy Conrad Piri chased through. Piri kicked it along further and dove on it over the tryline to give the Panthers a 12-10 lead, before another penalty to the Eels brought the scores to 12 all at the break.
Hansens boot proved quite a valuable asset for the eels with his fourth penalty conversion putting the Avatiu side back in front shortly after half time. Clive Nicholas then extended the lead to six with his sides second try. The Panthers had chances to level the scores again, but errors cost them badly.
Eventually when the Eels got back into the Panthers territory veteran Terry Piri kicked a field goal to give Avatiu a seven point buffer. Piri finished the game off with another field goal just before the full time siren to seal a 20-12 victory.
Earlier in the evening the Arorangi Bears clinched the Reserve grade title for the 8th straight season with a 24-18 victory over the Titikaveka Bulldogs. The Bears opened up a big lead, before hanging on to successfully defend their crown.
In the junior games the Avatiu Eels came from 10-0 down to win the under 13’s grand final 14-12 over the Arorangi Bears, the Panthers beat the Bears 20-10 in the under 16’s decider and the Eels won the under 19’s 15-4 also against the Bears.
A COOK ISLANDS RUGBY LEAGUE EXPERIENCE
I was fortunate enough to watch some of the under 13’s grand final and the standard was very, very good. I was impressed with the skill level and tactics of both teams and equally impressed by the size and passion of the crowd at this early stage of the day. Although due to pre-arranged travel commitments I was unable to watch the other games, I did enjoy the chance to meet many great people involved with Rugby League in the Cook Islands in the days leading up to the decider and got to chat about the state of the game there – and its all good news. Many believe it is already bigger than Rugby Union there, others were reluctant to go that far but said it was a close call.
The popularity of Rugby League in the Cook Islands is very obvious. A lot of the main clothes shops in and around Rarotongas’ main town of Avarua sell merchandise for the clubs. Maybe it was just because it was grand final week, but there were Avatiu Eels singlets, shirts and hats everywhere. You could also buy the same for the Panthers, Warriors, Sea Eagles, Bears, Bulldogs and the only “ outer island” team Aitutaki Sharks.
I am not sure if it was a deliberate ploy by the clubs to adopt NRL monikers but either way it was a good move as Rugby League loving tourists like myself end up buying them!
Rugby League is the only sport that has a team from an outer island competing in its main “Rarotonga-based” competition in the Cook Islands. Not even Rugby Union have a club based outside of Rarotonga playing in the top competition.
The Sharks are from Aitutaki, which is a smaller island to the north of Rarotonga with a population of just 2000 people. Their players have to travel in a plane for 40-50 minutes every fortnight to compete against the other six clubs, which doesn’t sound like a big deal compared to say the North Queensland Cowboys going to New Zealand to play the Warriors – but remember these players aren’t exactly full time professionals on million dollar contracts. Their commitment to travel to Rarotonga regularly (and the other clubs acceptance to also travel across to Aitutaki) demonstrates their passion for the sport and the popularity of the game in the Cook Islands.
The crew running the game in the Cooks are doing a sensational job, with a particular focus on attracting children to Rugby League – which is crucial to the long term success of the sport anywhere. The likes of Cook Islands Rugby League president Charles Carlson, George George and former Kiwi and Cook Islands test player Kevin Iro are among those responsible for the very healthy state of the game in the Islands.
They have established an academy for the best young Rugby League players in the Cook Islands, which greatly assists in the further development of their skill levels and are very proud to have three junior grades running. That might not sound like that many, but in a country with a population of approximately 15,000, that represents a very good portion of the youth playing rugby league.
I recently read an article that suggested Rarotonga will host a test match between the Cook Islands and the Kiwis, which will act as a four nations warm up for New Zealand. This will be absolutely HUGE for Cook Islands Rugby League. The presence of full time professionals, many of whom are heroes to the Cook Islanders, in their own country will be a massive boost for the code.
I didn’t realise until I was there, but the Maori people of the Cook Islands were actually the first to inhabit New Zealand and there are really close ties between the two nations. This game will no doubt strengthen those relations and I believe will make Rugby League the biggest sport in the Cooks – if it isn’t already.
A little off the topic, but worth mentioning I felt was my experience with the Avatiu-Nikao Mongoose Old Boys Rugby club. The club is for former Rugby League and Rugby Union players who still enjoy a game of touch footy twice every week and regularly play Rugby against the other Old Boys club in the Cooks, as well as touring Old Boys teams from overseas.
I was fortunate enough to join in on a game of touch football with the boys and they really made us feel extremely welcome. There was actually an old boys team from the Central Coast of NSW, ironically where I live, touring there at the time and most of them were there too. Afterwards we all gathered for a few beers and a “pot luck” dinner, where all of the locals brought a dish and put on massive spread for all to enjoy and it was absolutely beautiful. They also had a bit of a presentation and I was awarded a prize for coming along – a very humbling experience we were extremely grateful to be a part of.
It is many of these men who are involved in the running of Rugby League in the Cook Islands. And I cannot thank them or congratulate them enough on what they are doing for the sport there. Even though they only have a small local population base, with the number of Cook Islands Ex-patriots living in New Zealand and Australia, combined with their strong Rugby League infrastructure, which flows from their domestic club competition, through to David Farleigh as their national coach, the future of the sport looks strong in the Cook Islands.
And finally a big thanks to Dan from RLIS who put me in touch with the people of Cook Islands Rugby League – just another way his work is helping to strengthen this great game of ours across the globe.
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