COOK ISLANDS 26 V. NSW COUNTRY 22
NSW COUNTRY almost provided a grandstand finish to a quality international against the Cook Islands at Tamworth's Scully Park on Saturday night but couldn't quite reel the visitors in.
After leading the game from the first few minutes the Cook Islanders held on for a 26-22 win.
"It was a good game," Cook Islands captain Zeb Taia said.
"A couple of our boys were underdone in our team and well as theirs because we haven't played for a few weeks.
"But I think we put up a good show.
"We're happy to get the result, although we would have liked it to be a bit bigger.
"But they kept coming at us and we had to keep them out."
The Cook Islands started well with a try to Keith Lulia inside the first three minutes thanks to a grubber from Alex Glenn that found Country without a winger in the left-hand corner.
Country had almost no possession in the opening quarter and squandered what ball it did have.
That pressure eventually told as Glenn set up another try, this time with a sneaky inside ball to Zeb Taia who crashed through a couple of tacklers to score and make it 10-nil.
Country finally had a couple of chances at the other end but came up with some poor options and made errors and the only real chance slipped away when Hayden Crouch swooped on a grubber kick a fraction of a second late and grounded it over the touch in-goal line.
Things only got worse when centre Dan Randall coughed up the ball close to his own line straight into the hands of an opponent and Ben Taia strolled over to make it 14-nil.
It could have been a thrashing at that point but Country finally started to find its feet and scored when Sam Wooden broke a tackle from a scrum, bounced off a high shot from the Cook Islands fullback and then somehow carried two tacklers over the line and grounded the ball to referee Shayne Hayne's satisfaction to cut the score to 14-6 at halfitme.
Just after the break Warialda prop Chris Bamford was rewarded for his strong effort when he busted the line and used his surprising foot-work to weave his way over for a try that cut the margin to two points.
But the Cooks hit straight back through Daniel Roki and then Lulia Lulia finished off another try that was set up by an intercept, despite an amazing chase by Country hooker Mitch Williams to save the try in the first inctance.
Those two tries put the visitors up 26-12 and it looked like curtains for Country.
But it fought back again and it was Wooden who got the points again.
Randall made a clean break and then chipped perfectly for Wooden who still had some work to do to gather the ball and beat the cover defence but did it well to make it 26-16.
Country then had 10 minutes camped on the Cook Islands line but couldn't come up with a try that would have set up an exciting climax.
It wasn't until right on the bell that Crouch chased a kick through to score out wide and give the final score of 26-22.
"We had to dig deep in the last 10 minutes when we were on our own line the whole time," Zeb Taia said.
"I kept looking at the scoreboard and watching the minutes count down.
"But we weren't going to let in any soft tries again at that stage.
"We let a couple in earlier and then that last one was a bit disappointing."
Cook Islands prop Tinirau Arona was named man of the match after a strong showing but he had a few accomplices up front.
Coach David Fairleigh also praised Glenn, wingers Dominique Peyroux and Lulia Lulia for their defensive efforts and bench prop Walter Vaeau.
Country coach Brett Jones lamanted his side's first quarter which put it so badly on the back foot.
"The start disappointed me," he said.
"They caught our winger out of position for the first try and then one of the other tries the ball bounced out of one our blokes' hands.
"And when we did get he ball we were coughing it up.
"We got down there and kicked on the second tackle and put it dead and then there was a cut-out pass that went over the sideline on the third tackle.
"When you don't have the ball of course you're going to get tired.
"But once we settled down it was better."
He said the side grew in confidence after halftime and even in the last 10 minutes had some chances to push for a win.
"They realised they were in the game," he said.
"They weren't over-awed.
"It would have been a good game to watch.
"If we could have played like we did in 10 minute patches for the whole game I'm sure we would have got them.
"Bodie O'Connell was our best,"
"And Chris Bamford had a good game.
"We had a few young fellas in the side and I thought they all went well.
"It was a good effort across the park from all of them."
He said the week in Tamworth was a good one appreciated the support the side received before and during the game.
Cook Islands withhold late surge to defeat NSW Country 26-22
COOK ISLANDS 26 V. NSW COUNTRY 22