Let’s set the scene. The crowd bay on the long sidelines. The referee nervously takes the field, red card at the ready. And a team of prisoners lines up to take on the law enforcers in a fiercely-contested contact sport.
Sounds like Adam Sandler’s 2005 sports movie The Longest Yard, right? Well, the Cook Islands has had its own version.
More than three decades ago, inmates from Arorangi Prison fielded a team in a domestic Sevens rugby tournament.
Interestingly they were pooled with the Police side. The two teams met in the final pool match.
Needless to say the match was intense, brutal and went down to the wire. But it was humorous too, especially when a prisoner scored a try and pretended to run out of the gate!
Moments like these catapulted the growth of Sevens rugby in the Cook Islands. And there is only one man who deserves credit for this meteoric rise.
When Amene Rangi tossed the idea of introducing Sevens rugby to the Cook Islands, many doubted him. His critics said the abbreviated version wouldn’t work because Cook Islanders were keen followers of the 15s game.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t want to be part of it,” recalls Rangi in an earlier interview with this newspaper. “But I thought bugger them, I’ll just do it myself.”
With support from a couple of his mates, the likes of late Tokorangi Tokorangi and Tony Hole, Amene introduced Sevens rugby with a business house tournament in Rarotonga in 1979.
The response from the people was terrific. The game soon became a major hit and turned into a regular fixture on the main and the outer islands.
George George, the former national Sevens skipper and coach, says the sport became really competitive to the extent that they pulled out of the 15s game to start a Sevens competition.
“Our domestic tournament was exciting. We had teams like Avatiu who were very strong and had most of the national reps playing for the side. There were also teams like Avarua Bakery, Air Rarotonga, and CITC who were equally good,” says George.
“And then we also had a prisons team which played under Corrective Services. They were a strong side, very wild team and always end up collecting red cards.
“We used to have day-long tournaments and the field was always packed with spectators and teams.”
Realising the increasing intensity and need for more competition, Rangi came up with the idea to go international.
This resulted in the birth of the Cook Islands International Sevens tournament, first held in 1989.
The inaugural Raro International Sevens had 16 teams taking part and included star players like New Zealand Sevens legend Eric Rush and “wizard” Waisale Serevi.
George says teams were allowed to recruit two international players each.
And there was a good reason behind this, as Rangi explains: “If we put in more than two international players per team, we knew that they would win the game on their own, but if we put in two players, they would become part of the team.
“The whole point of the exercise was to get local players to rub shoulders with these professionals and become like them – to develop our local players.
“You look at the Piri family – the boys Darren and Terry were young boys then and they got to play alongside people like Eric Rush and Jonah Lomu. Look at them today – they are legends themselves.”
The inaugural tournament was won by the Sheraton which was coached and captained by George George.
“I was with the Avatiu team but we were not entering in the tournament for some reason. I was approached by Andrew McBirney and Mata Taruia who used to work for the Sheraton. They asked me to get the players together and they will take care of the expenses.”
Eric Rush joined the Sheraton along with New Zealand-based Pukapukan Henry Amosa as their overseas reps. Other players in the team were Ben Koteka, Semisi Foliaki, who was a Latter Day Saint missionary based in Rarotonga, Tangiau Tepai, Joseph Chambers, the late Rea Rea and Henry Iripa.
The team eased their way through to the knockouts without a loss and guess who they met in the final. Avatiu.
“After I joined Sheraton, Avatiu decided to enter in the tournament and there we were in the final. It was a bittersweet moment for me playing against my own team. But we had a job on hand and we won convincingly.”
Dave Campbell, a rugby writer from New Zealand, in an article on Raro International Sevens notes the tournament’s halcyon days were primarily in the 80s and early 90s.
Campbell says stellar names immersing themselves in the honesty of the local culture was one of the major themes of the event.
“There was no shortage of players in New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Samoa who were willing and able to take part and in those days, with rugby still carrying an amateur tag the costs involved was a lot less than it is today.”
Traditionally overseas players get given an adopted family for a few days to live with. The free accommodation came with some responsibilities.
According to Campbell, once founder Rangi went to collect another All-Black legend Graeme Bachop from one particular household. He found the great halfback out back raking the rubbish and performing other menial tasks assigned to him!
There were also instances like the island running out of corned beef during one of the international tournaments. This happened during one of the early years of the event.
Apparently, Palm were the major sponsors of the tournament and teams were presented with cartons of corned beef leaving none for the locals.
The anecdotes from the glory years certainly bring a smile. These are the stories that helped the tournament and Sevens rugby grow in leaps and bounds in the country.
And much of it has to do with the vision of one man – the legend and godfather of the game here, Amene Rangi.