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5:30am Thu October 20, 2022
Pool Matches - Week 1 - Leigh Sports Village Stadium, Leigh - Crowd: 6188

Pool Matches - Week 1: Wales v Cook Islands preview

Two sides at the ‘perceived' bottom of Group D go head to head in the final match of the opening round of pool matches at the Rugby League World Cup. Wales take on the might of the Cook Islands at the Leigh Sports Village Stadium in Leigh.

Wales have had a mixed build up to the World Cup, only playing one international against France where they were defeated 34-10 in June. From that side John Kear named however, all of the starting side have been named in his squad of 24. They have added the likes of Caleb Aekins (only player with NRL experience) and Josh Ralph (NSW Cup half) as far as the players which will be more recognisable to Australian readers. The Welsh Dragons also have two sets of twins, plus another two brothers. They were competitive in their warm-up game against Lebanon losing 38-22, but being in the game for the duration will be a challenge against the nations in their group such as PNG and Tonga.

If there's a strength, it's stability in the roster that has been selected, only Aekins and Kyle Evans are yet to make their international debut (both played in the warm-up match v Lebanon). They boast a good pack of forwards which won't stop trying, and have speed in the backs with Mike Butt and Rhys Williams having a blast of speed. A feel good story of the line-up is Anthony Walker, who was ruled out of the 2017 WC in Australia when a brain abnormality that had been with him since birth was discovered just days before the tournament. He was forced to retire from the game but was given the all clear to return in 2020 and is back in the international arena which is amazing to see.

Cook Islands on the other hand also have more of a stable side than others heading into this tournament. Like their opponents, they also had the advantage of playing a mid-year test where Tony Iro was able to pick out the pros and cons of his side before adding his Super League players. Dylan Napa and Zane Tetevano are handy pick-ups into this line-up, both boast a lot of experience and won the 2018 grand final with the Sydney Roosters.

What sets them apart is their young core of exciting players and the way they took the game to Samoa. Kayal Iro put the league world on notice with a strong performance at full-back in the Pacific Test. Also to note, the Cooks played an entertaining variety of attacking football with a heavy emphasis on keeping the ball alive through second phase play as seen in the test with Rennie and Gelling causing problems in the middle third. They'll have the services of Jono Ford to help guide them around the park, as well as the experience of Dominique Peyroux, Makahesi Makatoa and Tinirau Arona in the forwards along with young guns Davy Moale and Brendan Piakura. 

Last meeting: 2013 RLWC Group D - Wales 24 Cook Island 28.

They've met twice in World Cup action, with the two nations sharing the spoils. But in 2013, Cook Islands defeated Wales 28-24 and there's four survivors from that match in both sides squads in 2022. 

Who to watch: As the only player in the Welsh line-up with NRL experience, Caleb Aekins is going to be the focal point of the Wales side. After a strong season with Leigh, Aekins is primed for a strong World Cup. With a strong work-ethic, similar to many Super League fullbacks, he'll be a hand-full for a Cook Islands middle that can fatigue quite easily. His footwork at the line will be an asset for the Welsh side. 

After starring in the aforementioned mid-year test Kayal Iro put the league world on notice. Iro was the NSW Cup player of the year with a strong showing in a variety of positions throughout the backline. He was also rewarded with an NRL debut in Round 24. Iro is a strong carrier of the football and will be a handful for the Wales defence. If he can win his positional battle against Caleb Aetkins, it sets the Cook Islands up nicely for an opening victory.

The favourite: Cook Islands are the favourites for this final match of the first round of group stage matches.

My tip: I favour the experience of the Cook Islands to get up in this match-up. There's more excitement about the way they play and the attack at their disposal. Wales will be in it for the first hour or so, but the attack of the Pacific island nation will overpower the Welsh in the end. Cook Islands by 16.