Imagine a Cook Islands league team stacked with NRL stars – the likes of Dylan Napa, Esan Marsters, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Valentine Holmes, to name a few.
“If I had a million dollars, it could happen next year,” says former Cook Islands and Kiwi international Kevin Iro.
“These are professional players, they may have the heart to play for the country but you need the incentive to attract them as well.”
The exodus of top rugby league players led by the mighty Jason Taumalolo to Tonga has given other Pacific islands team such as the Cook Islands some hope to succeed in the game.
Tonga has slayed the giants New Zealand and Great Britain but the major win against the Australian Kangaroos just over a week ago has shocked international rugby.
It shows what Pacific teams can do at their best, with their top players, most of who are playing for the Kangaroos or the Kiwis.
“When I looked at that Tongan team in paper, I said that’s a world class team but no one ever expects a tier 2 nation to beat the world champs given how dominant the Aussies have been.
“I mean you don’t really expect Kiwis or Great Britain to beat them, you know they will probably beat them once in six or seven times … it’s like the All Blacks, you know the teams will beat them but not consistently,” says Kevin.
“But looking at the Tongan side, across the board there is just power, strength, skill and a team like that has to win eventually against the Australian.”
Kevin, who was nicknamed ‘The Beast’ during his playing days professionally in New Zealand and England, says rugby league is only a very small international sport and the big three nations have tried to keep it all to themselves probably to the detriment of the game.
But with top players of Tongan origin choosing to play for their nation, it sort of shifted things and Kevin hopes this will inspire more Pacific island players, especially the Cook Islanders wanting to play for their country.
“What Tonga has done actually puts the pressure on the NRL club because usually they are reluctant to let boys go for tier two nations. Now it will be hard for the clubs to say to any of the Tongan boys they can’t play.
“The Cook Islands has the potential of doing the same sort of thing, we could potentially name a full NRL squad but again it comes down to the boys actually wanting to commit.”
Kevin’s elder brother Tony Iro, the coach of the Cook Islands teams, says Tonga's recent success has really sparked the international game and something for other Pacific nations to aspire to.
“All the second-tier nations would love to replicate what Tonga has done and obviously they’ve got a handy squad with plenty of world class players at the moment but if you look at Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and even ourselves we’re starting to build a decent base of senior pros in and around the ranks,” Tony told RNZ.
“We’d love to be a part of the World Cup in a couple of years where we can hopefully inspire some more kids to pull on our green jumper and maybe some big names from the tier one nations as well.”
Charles Carlson, the president of the Cook Islands Rugby League Association, says Tonga’s majestic rise in the sport blows the door wide open for the Pacific teams to play regular games against the top three Australia, New Zealand and England.
“This was bound to happen with nearly 50 per cent of the NRL players are of Pacific origin. That is why we Cook Islands Rugby League must provide a pathway for our players to enable them play in the NRL competition otherwise we will be left behind,” says Carlson.
“At the end of the day we want to pick the best of the best to represent our nation and the best comes from playing in the NRL competition.
“Unfortunately many people are still stuck in what we called the DMD mode meaning ‘during my days’ mentality without realising that other nations have moved on or caught up with the times and we are still reminiscing about during my days.”
For the Cook Islands to come anywhere close to replicating Tonga’s success, a win in this weekend’s Rugby League World Cup qualifier against the United States is a must.
Kevin Iro says the match to be played in Jacksonville, Florida is very important to inspire a similar influx of top players like the Tongans into the national team.
“Rugby league is the only sport in the Cook Islands where we can potentially put together a fully professional squad which talks a lot about the game itself. Cook Islanders living in New Zealand or even here love the game.
“If you look at NRL which has become one of the biggest sports in Australia, it is being dominated now by Polynesians. When you look at the ratio of population dominating the national sport, it’s incredible. A small population like that (in Australia) can dominate the national squad.
“I think that’s the reason why we really got to be in the World Cup and playing at this highest level because it inspires the next generation who see this as a pathway to make a living and pathway to get yourself to a place where you doing something you love and getting paid for it.
“Sports is an industry and Polynesians just happen to be blessed with right tools for this industry and they are taking advantage of it. Why wouldn’t you?”