20 Jan 2020

Sport: Cook Islands Rugby League undaunted by 'group of death'

12:43 pm on 20 January 2020

The Cook Island Rugby League team is undaunted by being drawn in what many are calling the 'group of death' at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England.

The draw was made on Friday with Fiji grouped with champions Australia, Scotland and Italy and New Zealand have been drawn alongside, Lebanon, Jamaica and Ireland.

But the Cook Islands, who have only just qualified for the tournament, are locked in to play what many regard as the 'group of death'.

The Kukis go up against the remarkable Tongans, who most recently upset Australia, Papua New Guinea and Wales.

Tonga and the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

The Cook Islands also played Tonga at the 2013 World Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Cook Islands coach Tony Iro said his team was excited at the prospect of playing top teams.

"Obviously, Tonga will be the favourites but we're looking forward to the challenge against a Papua New Guinea team that's really improved over the last two years.

"Wales they're probably on a bit of a down turn but there is still a year and a half to go until the tournament so anything could happen," he said.

Iro said although it was a tough group, the team was ready to show the world what they were made of.

Kayal Iro celebrates after scoring. Tonga v Cook Islands. Day 1 of the Rugby League World Cup 9s, Bankwest Stadium, Sydney, Australia, 18th October 2019. Copyright Photo: David Neilson / www.photosport.nz

The Kukis upset Tonga at the Rugby League World Cup 9s. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2019 www.photosport.nz

"We're going to have a couple of tough games and it's a tough pool but I think if we can get our right squad together and play well, then we've got as much chance as anyone else in that group."

Iro said his team, like everyone else, will be aiming to make the quarterfinals of the tournament.

Team to use Oceania Cup as build-up for RLWC

Tony Iro, who represented both New Zealand and the Cook Islands internationally, said his team would get the opportunity to kick off their world cup preparation with their promotion this year's Oceania Cup.

The Cook Islands will play in Group B of the Cup alongside Samoa and PNG.

Cook Islands head coach Tony Iro looks on during training.

Cook Islands head coach Tony Iro looks on during training. Photo: Charles Carlson/Cook Islands Rugby League

With Australia not taking part in the Oceania Cup due to their northern tour, Fiji has been promoted into Group A with Tonga and New Zealand and the Cook Island were given their slot.

"We've got an opportunity this year to play in the Oceania Cup which gives us a couple of games against some quality opposition including fellow [RLWC 2021] pool members in Papua New Guinea," Iro said.

"It's going to be a good opportunity for us to test ourselves against some quality opposition and to get the team together...so we can improve as a unit before the tournament proper."

The PNG Kumuls celebrate beating the Cook Islands.

The Kukis were beaten by PNG in the 2017 Pacific Test weekend. Photo: Facebook / PNG Kumuls

The women's RLWC 2021 is set to run concurrently to the men's for the first time with PNG joining England, Canada and Brazil in Group A, and the Cook Islands booked in with New Zealand, Australia and France.

"The women's pool is looking really exciting with the ladies going up against New Zealand and Australia. I'm really looking forward to it," Iro said.

He expected the entire Cook Islands to get behind the teams.

"The Cook Island population and people are really excited about it.

"There's going to be a fairly big contingent going over [in England] and the fact that it's still a year and a half away still gives people plenty of time to plan so we're looking forward to a lot of support over there."

Chantelle Inangaro Schofield scores a consolation try for the Cook Islands.

Chantelle Inangaro Schofield scores for the Cook Islands against Australia at the 2017 Women's World Cup. Photo: NRL Photos

Fixtures dates for the tournament are yet to be announced but English Premier League football grounds like Old Trafford, Anfield, and the Emirates Stadium are among the 18 venues to be used.