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Polynesian rivals face off in World Cup precursor
Representative rugby league returns after a three year hiatus on Saturday evening as Samoa and the Cook Islands meet in a celebration of cultures at Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
Facing off in the first match of the Pacific Test double header, the Polynesian nations will be looking to build momentum ahead of the end-of-season Rugby League World Cup in the Northern Hemisphere.
Naming a revamped squad, featuring just two players returning from their most recent appearance on the international stage, Samoa will field a youthful team with 11 members of the extended squad in line to adorn the blue jersey for the first time. Penrith quartet Charlie Staines, Taylan May, Izack Tago and Spencer Leniu headline the new faces, alongside Francis Molo who previously represented the Cook Islands on two occasions during the mid-2010s.
Underperforming on the international stage in the years since making a serious impression during the 2014 Four Nations, coach Matt Parish has coached the side to one win and a draw in eight tests contested since 2017. Facing off against England in the opening match of the World Cup later this year, the side will be expected to progress into the quarter finals after being drawn alongside France and Greece in the group stage.
Regarded as a minnow among the emerging Pasifika nations, the Cook Islands will field a side comprised of lesser-known talent determined to make a big impression. Selecting NRL-contracted players Esan Marsters, Makahesi Makatoa, Davvy Moala and Super League veteran Tinirau Arona, coach Tony Iro will be banking on players from the New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand domestic leagues, including his nephews - Kayal and Andre - to cause an upset.
Failing to qualify for the previous Rugby League World Cup after losing a qualifier against Tonga at Campbelltown in 2015, the Cook Islands prevailed over South Africa and the United States of America in their most recent test matches.
Drawn alongside Papua New Guinea, Wales and Tonga at the World Cup, the side will need early group victories in order to reach the quarter finals for the first time.
Last meeting: 2009 Test - Cook Islands 22 Samoa 20, Barlow Park, Cairns
Who to watch: Coming through the junior ranks at Penrith as a fleet-footed fullback, Charlie Staines will have a rare opportunity to show his wares in his preferred position on Saturday evening. Starting the past two seasons on the wing in first grade only to be overlooked in favour of larger outside backs, the 21-year-old managed a single appearance in the number one jersey last season, producing an above average total of 153 running metres. Qualifying to represent Samoa through his grandfather, Staines will be using his test debut as a launching pad to break back into first grade and show his talents to prospective clubs in need of a fullback.
Regarded as one of the brightest prospects coming through the Broncos system in recent seasons, Brendan Piakura will be hoping to come into first grade calculations over the second half of the season. Knocking back the chance to sign with Canterbury on a lucrative deal early last season, the 20-year-old has been unable to build upon his sole NRL appearance with Broncos coach Kevin Walters opting to develop the second-rower with Norths Devils in reserve grade. Set to make his test debut alongside a host of players on Saturday evening, the Cook Islands will need Piakura to be at his best in order to prevail.
The favourite: Fielding a side brimming with first-grade regulars and experience in big matches, Samoa will be expected to prove too strong on Saturday evening.
My tip: While it can be difficult to gauge form for a one-off test between teams that haven't played for three years, Samoa's experience should be too much for the Cook Islands to overcome. Samoa by 16.
1. Charlie Staines 2. Taylan May 3. Izack Tago 4. Jaxson Paulo 5. David Nofoaluma 6. Chanel Harris-Tavita 7. Anthony Milford 8. Martin Taupau 9. Jazz Tevaga 10. Francis Molo 11. Josh Schuster 12. Jaydn Su'A 13. Josh Aloiai 14. Fa'amanu Brown 15. Keenan Palasia 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Bunty Afoa 18. Mathew Feagai 19. Ronald Volkman 20. Toafofoa Sipley
1. Kayal Iro 2. Steven Marsters 3. Anthony Gelling 4. Reubenn Rennie 5. Malachi Morgan 6. Esan Marsters 7. Reece Joyce 8. Vincent Rennie 9. Aaron Teroi 10. Xavier Willison 11. Brendan Piakura 12. Pride Petterson-Robati 13. Tinirau Arona 14. Brody Tamarua 15. Moses Noovao-McGreal 16. Makahesi Makatoa 17. Davvy Moale 18. Reuben Porter 19. Geoff Daniela 20. Andre Iro 21. Lucky Pokipoki
Referees: Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: Darian Furner, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Video Referees: Chris Butler;