5 Jun 2018

Sport: Extended Cook Islands rugby squad named for World Cup "second chance"

12:10 pm on 5 June 2018

24 overseas-based players will compete with a dozen locals for a spot in the Cook Islands rugby squad to play two World Cup play-off matches against Hong Kong.

Former Kukis rugby league international Tyrone Viiga and ex New Zealand Under 20s lock Shahn Eru are both playing professionally in France and have put their hand up for selection.

Tyrone Viiga represented the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

Tyrone Viiga represented the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Otago captain and former Highlanders hooker Sam Anderson-Heather is in line to make his test debut, while Grenoble number eight Stephen Setephano remains a chance to add to his one test cap if he recovers from injury in time.

Returning coach and former captain Stan Wright said all but one player in the forward pack has first class experience playing in New Zealand and Australia.

"I named a group of overseas boys to go back and fight for their spot with the local guys and the way I see it if everyone has their fair chance and fair go no one can really complain at the end of the day," he said.

"But there's a lot of Cook Island boys playing rugby at a high level, in New Zealand and other parts of the world, but it's just getting the availability.

"You've got to understand it's their bread and butter, it's their income for some guys playing pro and to make yourself available for the Cook Islands will make you a non-selectable player for a Super Rugby team, that's sort of the battle we're against.

"In saying that the boys we've selected they've got their chance and they've just got to go out and give it their best."

Sam Anderson Heather captained Otago during last year's Mitre 10 Cup.

Sam Anderson Heather captained Otago during last year's Mitre 10 Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Stan Wright was originally appointed Cook Islands head coach in April 2016 but was sacked 10 months later after falling out with the Cook Islands Rugby Union.

Now living in New Zealand and coaching his son's team at Wairarapa College, the 39 year old said he didn't say yes straight away and thought long and hard before agreeing to a second stint in charge.

"Just unfinished business, I didn't get to start what I wanted to do, so I thought I've got a good chance of making a difference to Cook Islands Rugby and that's what made me say yes to come back," he said.

"I'm a proud Cook Islander - I was born and raised there - and any chance I get to give back to the boys from the islands or the Cook Islands, (if) I can help out in any way rugby terms I will," enthused Wright on the line from Otaki, north of Wellington, where he was renovating a kitchen.

"Because I've been fortunate enough to have a very long professional career (so I'm happy) giving back to the game and helping out where I can but for me to coach the Cook Islands now it's a proud moment."

Former Cook Islands rugby captain and coach, Stan Wright.

Stan Wright during his first stint as Cook Islands coach. Photo: Cook Islands Rugby Union

The former Leinster front rower was not involved in the Cook Islands 13-9 Oceania Cup defeat by Tahiti in August, which initially ended their World Cup qualifying campaign at the first hurdle.

That result was subsequently overturned, after Tahiti were found to have fielded two ineligible players, and Wright admitted they were very fortunate to have been given another shot.

"From my point of view personally we're very lucky to be getting this chance. Whether we earnt it or not that's not for me to say but I can say we're very lucky to have this opportunity and from the boys I've spoken to everyone is excited just on the team," he said.

"Bar the local boys from the islands it's a whole different crew coming from New Zealand and Aussie and Europe. I've been fortunate a lot of guys have made themselves available whereas the test against Tahiti there weren't much guys available to be selected so I've been fortunate in that respect."

The Cook Islands extended squad will go into camp in Rarotonga from June 17 with a trial match scheduled six days later to determine the final 26 players to contest home and away tests against Hong Kong, who beat Korea at the weekend to win the Asia Rugby Championship.

The winner on aggregate will advance to November's four-team repechage tournament, with the repechage winner qualifying for next year's World Cup.

Overseas-based Cook Islands players:

Alex Casey (Brisbane), AJ Cambell (Brisbane), Alex Matapo (Auckland), James Pakoti (Wellington), Sam Anderson Heather (Otago), Matt Mullany (Wellington), Oneal Rongo (Northland), Shahn Eru (France), Tai Marsters (Counties), Tyrone Viiga (France), Eruu Wano (Bay of Plenty), Tai Ford (Brisbane), Teara Henderson (Wellington), Corry Tearoa (Perth), Walter Koteka (Perth), Will Raea (Counties), Reece Joyce (Counties), Josh Gordon (Otago), Gene Te Amo (Counties), Josh Tinomana (Perth), Brynn Uriarau (Hawkes Bay), Oisin Clarken (Melbourne), Justin Marsters (Sydney), Greg Mullany (Wellington)