FORMER Kangaroo and New South Wales forward David Fairleigh must take some credit for whipping into shape a formidable Cook Islands XIII that have so far posted two shock wins over their bigger brothers from the Pacific – Samoa and Fiji – in consecutive weekends. But most of the plaudits however, belong to the players themselves.
A surprise 22-20 win over Samoa in Cairns a fortnight ago and a dramatic 24-22 victory over Fiji Batis last Saturday in Port Moresby has forced many pundits to re-evaluate their views on the Cook Islands rugby league team contesting the SP Brewery Pacific Cup in Port Moresby.
Fairleigh, who was approached by former St Helens teammate and Cook Islander Kevin Iro to coach the team, said he had not done anything out of the ordinary to prepare the team for the Pacific Cup but the youth and enthusiasm in the team was a major plus.“We’ve got a very young side with 11 of the squad from the Toyota Cup so we’re not as experienced in terms of the number of games played unlike the Kumuls,” Fairleigh said.
“We do have plans in place and structures which the guys follow but I’ve got to give my boys a big rap because they’ve created most of the drive and enthusiasm themselves.
“I’ve just asked them to keep it simple and just enjoy the occasion.”
But perhaps the most encouraging attitude the Cook Islands bring to the tournament is a genuine sense of pleasure and satisfaction at being part of the contest and not just making up the numbers.
Fairleigh has not missed that.
“The boys are just happy to be here and are soaking up the atmosphere and giving everything they’ve got.
“We’ve gone from having to qualify just to make this tournament to playing for the cup so we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.
“Whatever happens we’ll give it our best shot,” Fairleigh said.
Unlike Tonga who capitulated against the Kumuls on Sunday on the back of an impressive warm-up performance that rattled world champions champions New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, the Cooks will bring a more robust game plan and what’s more will have the composure and confidence to execute their strategy giving the home team perhaps their toughest challenge yet.