16 Mar 2017

Sport: England, Cook Islands join Pacific Test program

11:19 am on 16 March 2017

England and the Cook Islands will feature in an expanded Pacific Rugby League Test program, as the sport gears up for the World Cup later this year.

The Cook Islands have long sought to be included in the annual international showcase and will take on Papua New Guinea as part of the triple-header at Campbelltown Sports Stadium on May 6th.

Fiji Bati will face Mate Ma'a Tonga in the second match before England clash with Toa Samoa.

Tonga and the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

Tonga and the Cook Islands at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Kukis coach Tony Iro admitted his side have looked on with envy the past four years as their Pacific neighbours have gone head to head, with the Cook Islands forced to watch from the sidelines, so they were excited to finally be involved.

"Especially the disappointment of missing out on World Cup from our knockout match 18 months ago," he said.

"It's nice to have something definite on the calendar for our players to look forward to.

"It's become a real integral part of the NRL calendar, the Pacific Test weekend, and I know a lot of our boys are really looking forward to taking part."

Tony Iro said he's hopeful that up to a dozen NRL players might make themselves available for the Cook Islands team in May, dependant on some who could also be selected for New Zealand.

England v New Zealand, 1st Test - KC Stadium, Hull, England - England's Sean O'Loughlin celebrates a try with team-mates.
Copyright photo: Alex Whitehead / www.photosport.nz

England will take on Toa Samoa in May. Photo: Photosport

England coach Wayne Bennett said the weekend will be a crucial part of his squad's preparation for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand at the end of the year.

"We're under no illusions that this will be a tough test for us with the majority of the playing group coming from abroad, but we'll prepare the best we can," he said.

"The Samoans are always a tough outfit but we've got a solid group of players to choose from and I'm looking forward to getting everyone together for the match ahead of the World Cup later this year."

PNG celebrate beating Fiji in the 2016 Pacific Test.

PNG celebrate beating Fiji in the 2016 Pacific Test. Photo: Facebook / NRL - National Rugby League

The Pacific Test program has been running for four years, with the PNG Kumuls beating Fiji and Samoa prevailing against Tonga in 2016.

Tony Iro said it was an important part of growing the international game.

"All of the island sides need as much exposure to the international game as possible," he said.

"I think that's where the growth area is in rugby league, especially in this part of the world, and I know for England to come down - which is a big commitment from them - it's great to see them supporting the international game."