It was the second half of this month’s third and final women’s game in the League Nines. The Country team had lost a player to injury – so they called on their coach.
Sharlene Atai had played for the Kiwi Ferns; back when she ran on the field in the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, she was 40 years old, with 20 years’ rep experience under her belt.
She had retired after the World Cup. She is now 42 – she was reluctant to return unprepared in the final minutes of the Nines. But her 18-year-old daughter Kaiyah was on the field, and urging her on – without the numbers, they couldn’t compete.
And so Sharlene Atai kitted up and ran on. And in that final half, her daughter passed her good clean ball, 20 metres out, and Atai stepped and ran and touched down by the posts – to give the Country team their only win over the Town team.
On the field that day were players as young as 15, like Tamira Metuangaro from Tereora College. And it is for players like her that Atai has worked so hard to get a women’s domestic league competition up and running.
That dream, shared with others like City manager Moari Allsworth and Cook Islands Rugby League president Charles Carlson, will be realised next week.
They have announced they will be kicking off a fortnightly town v country women’s Nines competition, alongside the men’s 13-a-side competition.
“We will be finalising the draw at our next executive meeting which will include the women’s,” Carlson said.
“Women’s league is growing in New Zealand, Australia and throughout the world, so we need to start developing our own – especially now Cook Islands has qualified for the World Cup for the second time.
“I believe Cook Islands will be a powerhouse in rugby league to be reckoned with, especially after defeating England at the last World Cup 2017. That was our first time to compete at that level and these other nations been playing for decades.
“We’ve got less than two years to prepare for the World Cup 2021 so we need to continue developing a bigger pool of players to select from including NZ and Australia-based players and then select the best of the best from it.”
Yesterday, standing beneath the posts at Raemaru Park in Arorangi, Sharlene Atai explained her drive to get a women’s competition up and running.
As a player, she represented New Zealand at the World Cup – and other Cook Islanders in the Kiwi Ferns since then have included Ngatokotoru Arakua, Kimiora Nati, Apii Nicholls, Kiana Takairangi, Charntay Poko and Crystal Tamarua.
“There’s a lot of role models for our girls, growing up.”
But Atai is excited about giving today’s young players then chance to represent their own country, Cook Islands – and in 2021, that will mean getting equal pay with the male players.
“The goal is the Cook Islands women’s squar. This is a strategy to give them an opportunity to build their skills – we need to start developing our girls’ skills earlier.”
Atai, whose day job is working for the Ministry of Education, is also keen to offer league opportunities to schoolgirls. She’s planning to work with three schools this year to set up U13 girls’ league in the schools, with gala days when they play each other.
“I’ve had people contact me who want to bring girls’ teams over here to play – so we’re going to start with U13s in the schools, then build up to the U16s and U18s.
“Seeing girls enjoy playing it as much as I enjoyed it, and giving back – it’s so special.”
THE LEAGUE DRAW
Fri Feb 7: Ngatangiia-Matavera Sea Eagles v TKV Warriors, at Nukupure Park
Sat Feb 8: Tupapa Panthers v Titikaveka Bulldogs, at Victoria Park
Arorangi Bears v Avatiu Eels, at Raemaru Park
Fri Feb 14: TKV Warriors v Avatiu Eels, at Takuvaine
Sat Feb 15: Tupapa Panthers v Arorangi Bears, at Victoria Park
Titikaveka Bulldogs v Ngatangiia-Matavera Sea Eagles, at Teimurimotia Park
Women’s Town v Women’s Country, venue TBC