Former All Black Lima Sopoaga giving Cook Islands belief ahead of Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifier | Rugby World Cup 2023

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Cook Islands coach Nathan Robinson has been working with the former Wasps playmaker ahead of the country’s Asia/Pacific qualifier against Tonga on Saturday.

Cook Islands coach Nathan Robinson is confident the team’s best preparation in more than a decade and a half can help them upset Tonga and keep them on track for Rugby World Cup 2023 qualification.

The Cook Islands are scheduled to face the ‘Ikale Tahi in the Asia/Pacific Qualifier in Pukekohe on Saturday, with the winner of the one-off match going on to play the Asia Rugby Championship 2021 champions in the Asia/Pacific play-off.

Tonga have won each of their three tests against their Pacific neighbours by an aggregate score of 235-22, their most recent victory coming in qualifying for RWC 2007 when Robinson lined up at fly-half for the Cook Islands.

However, Robinson — who was part of a Cook Islands sevens squad that secured HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series victories against Australia, Argentina, England and Tonga between 2008-09 — is confident his side has a game plan that can deliver success.

Robinson’s coaching staff has been bolstered by former All Blacks fly-half Lima Sopoaga, whose three brothers are in the squad, and Hino Red Dolphins flanker Ash Parker, and he says their presence and professionalism has proved invaluable.

“The belief is here,” Robinson told World Rugby. “Having these professional players that have come in to help coach has lifted the boys’ spirits and also mentally, physically, the boys have been good for it.

“We know what we need to do to win the game, you know, an ugly win’s better than no win.

“We’ve implemented a game plan in conjunction with the weather and who we’re playing against that I personally think will nullify our opponents and the boys, as long as we can trust and believe for the 80, I can’t see why we can’t go all the way.”

He added: “I started in 2005 with the Cooks and hands down this is our best preparation.

“Our new president, Ashleigh Wihongi-Willis, she’s stood up and given everything we need and supported us 110 per cent, and that’s got the boys to where we are now.”

Really enjoyed this week. Helping our small nation prepare for a test has been such a blessing. I’ve made some brothers for life this week as well as spending time with my 3 brothers. #TUKIA — Lima Sopoaga (@LimaSopoaga) July 22, 2021

Raising the bar

The Cook Islands have warmed up for the match against Tonga with a narrow 31-24 defeat to Mitre 10 Cup holders Tasman and a heavier 73-0 loss against New Zealand U20.

But, having people with the experience of Sopoaga and Parker around the camp has helped keep spirits up.

“If it wasn’t for Lima and Ash Parker out of Japan, we wouldn’t be in the mindset we’re in right now,” Robinson said.

“Obviously, having boys from Rarotonga, New Zealand, Australia, guys playing NPC and then lower club rugby, we had to kind of calibrate a game plan to get all four levels on the one.

“But, then bringing Lima in with his experience, he has raised the bar. He’s challenged the boys to aim higher and they’ve accepted that and we’re moving forward in the same direction at a higher level.”

Sapoaga has thrown himself into the role, working late nights and early mornings studying footage, and Robinson hinted that the former Wasps and Highlanders playmaker could have a future in coaching when he hangs up his boots.

“I think personally he’s surprised himself. He’s really shy and stand-backish the first couple of days, but once he got around the boys and got to know what the systems are and what we need, he’s taken the bull by the horns,” he said.

“He’s really taken over and I don’t think he’s realised what he’s been doing the last 48 hours with the team.”

‘It’s hard to keep my emotions in check’

Taking on the coaching role, which was offered at short notice last month, was a dream come true for Robinson, who had initially been asked to compile a database of New Zealand-based players eligible to represent the Cook Islands.

Having played in three Rugby World Cup qualification campaigns for the Cook Islands without success, leading his country against Tonga on Saturday will be a special moment for the coach.

“It’s hard to put into words how I feel,” he said.

“It’s hard to keep my emotions in check when I’m addressing the boys, particularly when we’re talking about game situations and what it means to put the jersey on and the responsibilities on the shoulder of our country.

“We’ve got probably 15 boys making their debut this week, so it’s all new for them, too. So, we’re just trying to ease their way through and it’s not really about ourselves, [it’s about] making sure our players are in a good mind-frame and mentally and physically up for the challenge.”

But, he is certain where victory on Saturday, and potential France 2023 qualification, would rank on his list of achievements in the game.

“It’d be right at the top,” Robinson said.

“We’ve had a few good wins in the sevens, beating England and Australia and Samoa prior [to that] but tests, you know, we weren’t too good against Fiji or Tonga.

“But to be on the other side of the ledger as a coach now, this is the best prep we’ve ever had, on and off the field. So, we’re ticking all those boxes.

“It would be absolutely amazing for our countrymen back home in Rarotonga and around the world if we win this game this weekend.”

Team Cook Islands adjusting to mask life in Tokyo

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Team Cook Islands is still adjusting to life under Covid-19 restrictions at the Tokyo Olympics.

Photo: Facebook/Cook Islands Canoeing Association

The Cooks are Covid-19 free but life in Japan is very different, with infections on the rise in the capital.

Spectators have been barred from attending events after Tokyo declared a state of emergency which will run throughout the Olympic Games.

Cook Islands Chef de Mission John Paul Wilson said the team’s physio did not travel to Japan because he declined to be vaccinated, but the delegation on the ground have all received two doses.

But wearing masks, he admitted, has taken some getting used to for the Rarotonga-based members of their team.

“So far, it’s been really good because a lot of the athletes and officials here are actually listening to all the counter-measures that has been put in place, so it’s been really good,” he said.

“Apart from wearing the mask - my team here is still not really used to wearing the mask because back home we don’t wear masks.”

Photo: Supplied

The Cook Islands have six athletes competing in Tokyo, after paddler Bryden Nicholas pulled out for personal reasons last month.

Four of them will be at tonight’s opening ceremony, including flag-bearers Wesley Roberts and Kirsten Fisher-Marsters.

Chef de Mission John Paul Wilson said they will all be dressed to impress.

“The team will be wearing the TAV’s shirt, what we normally wear and then we will have some other stuff that goes with it,” he said.

“Then our flag-bearers they will be in a different outfit, different from the team, so I’m not going to reveal that much. We’ll just wait for the time that we come out and present everything, so you can judge for yourself.”

Swimmer Wesley Roberts is the first Cook Islands athlete in action tomorrow night in the 400m freestyle heats, followed by the 200m on Sunday.

Wilson believes the “Atiu Rocket” has a real chance of advancing beyond the first round.

“Before coming to Tokyo he was in a competition that he did really well,” he said of the Sydney-based swimmer.

“He actually broke his own record before coming to the Games so that’s a big thumbs up to him…he said it has been difficult during these Covid times. Sometimes he had to schedule times for the swimming pool and it was only him by himself, so he’s been training hard for it.”

Kirsten Fisher-Marsters is also in action on Sunday in the women’s 100m breaststroke heats, while paddler Jane Nicholas will make her Olympic debut in the women’s K-1 slalom heats, joining her siblings Ella and Bryden in representing the Cook Islands on the biggest stage in sport.

The 28-year-old will also compete the women’s C-1 slalom event, which has replaced the men’s C-2 as the Olympics moves toward gender equality.

“She’s going to be doing another sprint that’s outside the comfort zone which is going to be the k-1 sprints as well, the same as the other two young canoeists (from Cook Islands, Jade Tierney and Kohl Horton) as well so it’s going to be something different for her. But her main focus will be on the canoe slalom so we just hope it all turns out good on the day.”

Seventeen-year-old duo Tierney and Horton don’t get underway in their solo kayak events until Monday and Wednesday respectively, while middle distance runner Alex Beddoes will compete in the men’s 800m next weekend.

The Cook Islands has never won an Olympic medal but John Paul Wilson said that doesn’t stop them dreaming.

“It’s like every other country, we’re hoping that we’re able to get a medal but if we don’t achieve that I’m just hoping that they actually push themselves and actually get personal bests,” he said.

“And also have good records that we can compare back home and there will probably be results that our future athletes can try and beat - like a motivation thing for them.”

Cook Islands 2021 Dengue Type 2 Outbreak - Situation report Week 27 ending 11/07/21 - Cook Islands

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