Wales’ World Cup wait goes on as they are denied by Cook Islands comeback

The reactions of John Kear and his players at full time told the story. Make no mistake about it, neither Wales nor the Cook Islands will be lifting the Rugby League World Cup trophy aloft next month but, as the Cook Islands coach Kevin Iro said, World Cup wins do not come easy.

How both nations know that all too well. The Cook Islands did not even qualify for the last World Cup in 2017, and Wales haven’t won a game at the tournament since 2000. Welsh supporters would have hoped at various points here that their wait was about to come to an end, but despite a spirited effort, they fell agonisingly short.

Leading 12-6 at half-time, it certainly seemed possible that the band of brothers Kear has assembled for this tournament were capable of springing a surprise. Their headline players have either converted to other nations, retired or, in the case of rugby union-bound Regan Grace, switched codes, leaving Kear with little in the way of top-level experience to select from.

Just two of his 24-man squad are from Super League, with the rest part-time players from the lower leagues of England and Australia. Their prop, Dan Fleming, runs a cake shop in Halifax by day. Their captain, Elliot Kear, is a firefighter. They were desperately close to a first World Cup win in 22 years here, but ultimately it was the Cook Islands who kept their hopes of qualifying from Group D alive with victory.

“I’m immensely proud, the effort was absolutely superb,” Kear said afterwards. “There were some superb individual performances but it was a collective display. It’s difficult to sum up, as there’s a lot of emotion, but we were right in there until the end.”

Tries from Rhodri Lloyd and Ollie Olds gave the Welsh a deserved lead at half-time, with the Cook Islands’ response coming from Anthony Gelling. The Cook Islands may have a population of only 16,000 but they have much more top-level talent than Wales, aided by players born in Australia and New Zealand who qualify through family heritage. That includes the likes of Esan Marsters, who will play for Huddersfield next year, and Davvy Moale, the South Sydney prop whose barnstorming try midway through the second half helped put the Cook Islands ahead.

Wales fought commendably all evening but as that second half wore on, you feared that fatigue would set in among their predominantly part-time squad. Moale’s try, as he crashed through four Welsh defenders, underlined that, and when Steven Marsters collected a Brad Takairangi kick four minutes later, the writing felt like it was on the wall for Wales.

But they battled until the very end. Even in the dying seconds, they had an opportunity to score the try that would have levelled the game, but the Cook Islands held on. The manner in which the Welsh players slumped to the turf suggested they knew the World Cup victory which has escaped them for 22 years had slipped through their grasp again.

Twelve of Kear’s 24-man squad were born in Wales, something he believes will yield a long-term gain for the nation. There may have been short-term pain here, with more to come ahead of tougher group games against Tonga and Papua New Guinea but they could certainly leave Leigh with their heads held high.