The Cook Islands have just scraped out a win to start off their tournament, downing a spirited Wales side 18-12 in Leigh. After trailing at half-time, they were forced to rally, and in the end it came down to a last minute defensive effort that secured the two points for them.
The game started out evenly, with both teams feeling each other out and going set for set. Both sides' kicking games forced the other to work it out from inside their own 10 or 20 metres, and the ball was in play for a long time with minimal errors and penalties. Just when it looked like the Cook Islands were beginning to get on top, they gave away a penalty that gave Wales their first attacking opportunity of the match.
Wales forced a handful of repeat sets, and it wasn't long until they found the opening points of the match. A Josh Ralph grubber for Rhodri Lloyd to steam on to perfectly put the Welsh side in front, and the kick was converted by Matty Fozard from next to the posts. A good set from Wales after points put Cook Islands under heaps of pressure, and the Welsh team looked well in control.
But they then conceded a penalty, followed by two six agains, and suddenly the momentum was all in the favour of the Cook Islands. Tepai Moeroa stormed over under the posts, but was denied by the video referee. But the Cook Islands only had to wait a few more minutes to open their account, when Esan Marsters scooted out of dummy half and created an opportunity out of nothing for his team. He found Gelling on the inside, who dived over under the posts in the 22nd minute.
With the score back on level terms, both sides were looking dangerous. Wales struck next though, when Ollie Olds sold the whole of the Cook Islands' defence a dummy and strolled over in the 27th minute. Everything seemed to be going in the favour of the Welsh side, with a successful captain's challenge winning themselves a penalty in their set following points, but they couldn't convert their field position into another try.
Cook Islands were well on top in the final minutes of the second half, with the tiring Welsh defence giving away a number of six agains. They were again denied by the video referee in the 38th minute, and although they couldn't convert the possession into a four pointer, Steven Marsters slotted a penalty goal on the stroke of half-time to bring the score to 12-8, Wales in front.
Both teams came out firing in the second half, with offloads and line breaks galore in the first handful of minutes. The game settled back into a rhythm, with both teams' defences holding up to inspection. The Cook Islands got the first proper attacking chance of the second half when the video referee denied them for a third time in the 56th minute.
A piece of individual brilliance from Davvy Moale brought about the first points of the second half. The Cook Islander beat about five players to storm his way to the line, and the try was subsequently converted to give Wales the lead for the first time in the match. Suddenly, it was all Cook Islands. Making metres from will out of their own end, it was only a few minutes until they struck again, this time through winger Steven Marsters. He failed to convert his own try, and the Cook Islands led 18-12 with 15 minutes on the clock.
Despite Cook Islands continuing to apply pressure, Wales held on. They were gifted a number of attacking opportunities in the dying minutes, with the Cook Islands giving away two 20m restarts. But Wales couldn't convert, and with just 1 minute left on the clock the game looked well and truly over.
But Rhodri Lloyd came up with a huge play for the Welsh, charging down a kick and giving his team one final attacking set. With the Cook Islands' defence retreating, Wales looked like they were in for all money on the left hand side, but they just couldn't get it over the line. Cook Islands held on, and Welsh hearts were broken.
The Cook Islands will be eyeing off a clash with PNG next week, with a quarter-final spot on the line. Wales will face the might of Tonga next up, and they'll need to step it up a few levels if they're going to challenge them.