19 Jun 2018

Sport: Cooks begin Hong Kong prep after World Cup reprieve

7:47 pm on 19 June 2018

With the Cook Island's Rugby World Cup qualifying hopes handed an unlikely lifeline, being back in camp with the national team is a surreal experience for front rower Mat Mullany.

The Cookies were beaten 13-9 in their Oceania Cup clash against Tahiti in August but that result was overturned in March, after the French Territory was found to have fielded two ineligible players.

Tahiti beat the Cook Islands in Rarotonga

Tahiti's win over the Cook Islands was ultimately overturned. Photo: Oceania Rugby / Sportography

Mat Mullany, who started that match at hooker, with brother Greg at first five eighth, said it was a completely different team from the one assembled for the upcoming home and away matches against the winners of the Asia Rugby Championship, Hong Kong.

"The majority of the players were locally based and the coach was also a local," he said.

"It was a really great opportunity for us to bond quite quickly. In terms of the actual match itself against Tahiti it was a very, very physical contest and on that occasion they came out on the right side of the ledger.

"To fast forward a couple of months from that date and to be told that World Rugby had announced that the match result be overturned... was quite a surreal experience and obviously it's given us a renewed sense of confidence and focus heading into the next stage of World Cup qualifying."

Members of the Cook Islands squad put in some promotional work before the Oceania final

Mat and Greg Mullany (L, 2L) in Rarotonga before last year's test against Tahiti. Photo: Cook Islands Rugby Union

Former Cook Islands captain Stan Wright has returned for a second stint as head coach and Mat Mullany, who played alongside him during the successful 2013 Oceania Cup campaign in Port Moresby, said Wright had brought an air of confidence to the team.

"The management team that has been put together for this particular campaign is probably our most qualified," Mullany said.

"You have Stan Wright who is a two-time Heineken Cup champion, you have Nathan Mauger - an ex All Black, you have Andrew Walker, who's an ex Brumbies and Wallabies player and obviously they bring a lot of experience, as does Kevin Iro with his rugby league background," he said.

"So I think a lot of players have found the environment that the management team is trying to create quite attractive and obviously it has indicated the Cook Islands are quite serious about progressing through Rugby World Cup qualification and then eventually onto the World Cup, so they are the key goals."

The Cook Islands won the Oceania Cup in 2013.

The Cook Islands won the Oceania Cup in 2013. Photo: Bruce Southwick/Zoomfiji

The Cook Islands extended squad assembled in Rarotonga at the weekend with the Wellington-based Mullany brothers among 24 overseas-based players competing with a dozen locals for a place in the final squad.

"It's a privilege and an honour to play for the Cook Islands national team and I'm proud to represent my mother's heritage," Mullany said.

"We're from the island of Mitiaro, which is an outer island of the Cook Islands, about 45 minutes plane ride from Rarotonga, so that's really the key reason - it's an honour and privilege to represent the Cook Islands people in rugby."

The extended squad, which includes Otago captain Sam Anderson-Heather and former Kukis rugby league international Tyrone Viiga, will square off in a trial match in Rarotonga on Saturday local tome after which the coaching staff will select a final 23-man squad to play Hong Kong on June 30.

"Having a trial will make sure that guys have an opportunity to put their best foot forward for selection," Mullany said.

Twenty-six players will travel to Hong Kong for the return leg on July 7.

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