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.”