Rugby: Big day beckons for Cook Islands

By Campbell Burnes

What could be the greatest day in Cook Islands rugby history beckons.

The 47th-ranked Cooks take on Fiji in Lautoka on June 28 with the tantalising carrot of a direct pass to Rugby World Cup 2015. This final Oceania RWC qualifier has previously featured the Cooks, but they have never made it to rugby's big dance.

The Cooks union has billed this 'One Win, One Dream' and the job of head coach Barry George and manager Cam Kilgour was to scour the globe, hammering social media, among other outlets, to discover who was eligible, who was keen, and, most importantly, who was available.

Confirmed so far are players of the calibre of prop Stan Wright of Stade Francais, Joel Rapana from Perth, first five Sam Vaevae, a Gallaher Shield winner with Pakuranga last season and now plying his trade in Sydney's Shute Shield, former Waikato No 8 Steven Setephano, now out of Japan, and former Auckland fullback Chay Raui.

Former Northland, Auckland and Tasman hooker Francis Smith will fill a hooker/flanker role. The Cook Islands did not get everyone they wanted. They don't have a budget to fly players back from the north (though Wright will pay his own way), and the match is unhelpfully played outside the IRB window. So they missed out on Rebels wing Joe Kamana and Highlanders flanker Sam Anderson-Heather.

Tim Bateman of the Hurricanes indicated he would have been keen to play if the game had been a week earlier, and he may be a viable RWC option should the Cooks win this one.

The plan is to go into camp in south Auckland on Friday, before two games (Thames Valley in Paeroa on June 16 and the Blues Development XV in Auckland on June 18). The 26-man squad will then fly to Fiji on June 23 to acclimatise.

Assistant coach, former North Harbour hooker and current Auckland Under 21 coach Brent Semmons, knows it is a big ask, but it is about getting the players, implementing the right game plan, and hoping it all pans out on the day.

"Without giving too much away, we're not going to be playing too much attacking footy against the Flying Fijians. They're a bloody good side with good athletes, and if they get their shit together, we're going to be in trouble, but if we are on our mettle and they are off theirs, we could tip them over," said Semmons, adding that a positive result could see a few more players of Cooks heritage come out of the woodwork.

Fiji have two Pacific Nations Cup matches to warm up, but will not have access to speedsters like Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Nemani Nadolo due to Super Rugby, while several of their French club stars will be doubtful.

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