MINNOWS ON A MISSION
Boasting a population of 14,000 people - just about one-third of the crowd who will turn up at the Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday - and only 100 rugby players, it comes as no surprise that the Cook Islands is the smallest country appearing at the Hong Kong Sevens.
But don't worry, the Polynesians promise to punch well above per capita and are confident they will leave their mark by the end of Sunday. 'We are the smallest country with the biggest heart. And we will be the surprise package at the Hong Kong Sevens,' warns Damian Beddoes, coach of the Cook Islands, a net of 15 islands in the heart of the South Pacific.
Beddoes is new to the job. This is his first tournament in charge of the sevens squad. The Cook Islands Rugby Union, impatient for results, approached the New Zealander and asked him to take over the team who have figured in two legs of this year's IRB Sevens - in Brisbane and Wellington - without much acclaim.
They have no series points as yet. But three wins in 11 games at these two tournaments - over Tonga, Papua New Guinea and China - shows the Islanders have the potential to cause an upset or two. 'We have quite a competitive outfit. Half the side are Kiwis, Fijians and Samoans who have made the Cook Islands their home. The rest are all natives. Rugby is the national sport of the Islands and I'm confident the boys will do well,' says Beddoes.
Beddoes himself is an 'outsider'. Having married a woman from the Cook Islands, he decided to leave Rotorua so that his son and daughter could be brought up according to the culture of Islanders. Just 28, he unfortunately is not qualified to play for Cook Islands under the IRB's three-year residency ruling. So the next best thing was coaching.
'We have a close-knit team. Only two of the team live away, in New Zealand, while the rest all play in the local league in Rarotongo which is the capital.
'The player to watch out for is our hooker, Lance Fitzpatrick. He is a truck driver who loves to score tries. He scored four tries against China at the Wellington Sevens which was the highest single match tally at the tournament,' says Beddoes.
Flyhalf Terry Piri is the only surviving member of the team that qualified to play at the 1997 World Cup Sevens, the only previous time that the Cook Islands have appeared in Hong Kong. 'We are very grateful to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union for inviting us this year. Our aim is to repay their faith and trust in us by going out there and performing,' said Beddoes.
He also has his eyes on playing in the Beijing leg next weekend. 'A number of teams have pulled out of Hong Kong and if they don't figure in Beijing, then maybe the organisers and the IRB will be looking for replacements and we are more than willing to play. Any opportunity to play at an IRB tournament must be grabbed.'
Overseas exposure is treasured by the parochial Cook Islanders. The travel blurbs say the Islands are the best kept secret in the South Pacific. Little is also known about their rugby. But the 12 players are now keen to make the most of this opportunity. With the rest of the rugby population back home - all 88 of them - cheering them on, the Islanders will go all out to cook up a storm.