In today’s edition of ‘Starting XVII’, we focus on the Cook Islands.
The Kukis failed to qualify for the 2017 competition but will be back in action in 2021, having built what they deem a strong and competitive squad.
They impressed at the World Cup 9s, beating both Fiji and Tonga, while they also defeated South Africa and the USA in full internationals.
Here’s how we think they’ll line up next Autumn…
Fullback – Kayal Iro
Son of former Leeds and St Helens centre Kevin, Iro has emerged as a top talent in the past 12 months. A successful season with the New Zealand Warriors’ academy in 2019 was topped off with an impressive performance at the World Cup 9s, where he scored a double in the surprise win over Tonga. He was snapped up by Newcastle ahead of 2020, with the Knights impressed by his evasiveness and pace.
Wingers – Reubenn Rennie and Steven Marsters
A product of the Canterbury Bulldogs’ academy, Rennie is among the most dangerous wingers in Australia’s Canterbury Cup. Now playing for the Mount Pritchard Mounties, the 24-year-old is a superb finisher and has scored 36 tries in 83 appearances for the club. Marsters is still on the NRL scene, currently contracted to South Sydney. Cousin of Kiwi international Esan, the 20-year-old is a handy goal-kicker and actually broke the nation’s point-scoring record against South Africa last June.
Centres – Anthony Gelling and Dominique Peyroux
The centre pairing are two of several Super League players eligible for the Cook Islands squad. Gelling is a popular figure in the UK, not least because of his larger-than-life persona off the field. The self-proclaimed ‘man of the people’ will bring his athletic and extravagant style to the World Cup, just as he did in the 2013. St Helens’ Peyroux was also part of the Kukis side that year and, despite fleetingly representing Samoa in 2014 and 2015, is committed to the cause for next Autumn. Usually a back rower, his hard running and awkward sidestep make his a real threat in attack.
Halves – Brad Takairangi and Troy Dargan
An odd halves pairing, admittedly, but one that could be effective. Dargan is a natural halfback and will lead the side in attack. He’s currently under contract at South Sydney, acting as understudy to NRL Premiership winner Adam Reynolds. Takairangi is an experienced competitor, having played over 160 games for Sydney, Gold Coast and Parramatta, and despite usually lining up in the centre or back row, has often deputised in the halves. His skillset and technical ability will allow him to slot in alongside Dargan fairly easily.
Props – Francis Molo and Dylan Napa
North Queensland prop Molo hasn’t represented the Kukis since 2016, when he made two appearances, but would be a useful player to call-up. He’s robust, powerful and provides the kind of aggression they’ll need against the likes of Tonga and PNG. Napa is another player who’s had a significant hiatus from the squad. His only Cook Islands appearances came at the 2013 World Cup, while he has since represented Queensland Origin and the Australia Prime Minister’s XIII. The 27-year-old was once tipped to be one of the world’s top front rowers and for good reason, with his explosive running game and aggressive nature often intimidating opposition packs. Penrith forward Zane Tetevano is also eligible, however, he is likely to be selected by New Zealand.
Hooker – Tinirau Arona
Arona isn’t a natural hooker by any means but is one of several quality forwards who are too good to leave out. As a ball-handling utility forward, the 31-year-old should be able to slot into the no.9 spot fairly easily, however should the Kukis prefer a natural hooking option, then Central Queensland Capras rake Aaron Teroi serves as another useful option.
Second Rowers – Alex Glenn and Zeb Taia
As the nation’s current captain, Brisbane veteran Glenn will lead from the front alongside fellow experienced head Taia. The pair have solid reputations in the NRL, while the latter has also made a big impact during his two spells in Super League with Catalans and currently St Helens. They are both strong runners and have the ability to shift into the centres if needed.
Loose Forward – Kenny Edwards
Huddersfield back rower Edwards has all the confidence and ability to be one of the side’s biggest threats at the World Cup. He’s not afraid to chance his arm with the ball and has a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents. He’s highly skilful and has plenty of experience in both the NRL and Super League.
Subs – Marata Niukore, Nathaniel Peteru, Adam Tangata, Pride Petterson-Robati
With so many talented forwards at their disposal, it’s probable that the Kukis will have a big bench. UK-based props Peteru and Tangata have impressed with their toughness and aggression for Leeds and Wakefield respectively, with the former recently joining Hull KR for the remainder of the season. Peteru hasn’t represented the nation before but was named in a train-on squad in 2011. Versatile 23-year-old Niukore has become a semi-regular in the Parramatta Eels’ side in recent years, racking up over 40 appearances since his debut in 2018. Finally, young Brisbane back rower Petterson-Robati is one of the Broncos’ hottest prospects and is expected to break into their NRL squad in the next two years. The hard-hitter made his Cook Islands debut last year and is expected to line up for them once again at the World Cup.