Rugby League: Cooks are Cup worry for Wales

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The Independent Online
THE HOME nations emerged with mixed fortunes from the partly preordained, partly random affair that was the glitzy draw ceremony for the Lincoln Financial Group Rugby League World Cup yesterday.

The tournament, to be played in Europe in the autumn of next year, was already seeded to place England and Australia in one group, Wales and New Zealand in another, and Ireland and Scotland together in a third.

But the rest of the process, carried out at the Savoy Hotel in London, saw England given Fiji and Russia to overcome, to set up a quarter-final against one of the likely qualifiers from the group containing Ireland, and Scotland, Samoa - no longer merely Western Samoa - and the New Zealand Maoris.

Wales will have to beware of the threat of the Cook Islands if they are to qualify along with New Zealand. The former Kiwi Test centre, Kevin Iro, and his brother, Tony, are to play for the Cook Islands, their ancestral home, against the Welsh, the Kiwis and the side that wins through from a qualifying competition featuring Canada, the United States, Japan, Morocco, Lebanon and Italy.

"It will seem strange playing against New Zealand, but that's a decision my brother and I took some time ago," Iro, who plays for St Helens, said. "We want to put something back into the Cook Islands and the World Cup will be a huge thing for them."

The Maori side will also be an intriguing one, with its assistant coach, Dean Bell, predicting that Tawera Nikau will come out of international retirement to captain them.

What is certain is that this will bring the widest cross-section of international teams and players together in the history of the game.

"We believe it can have the same effect on awareness and participation as the 1991 Rugby Union World Cup and Euro 96 in football," said the tournament director, Neil Tunnicliffe, who immediately dubbed the French-based group, which also includes Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Tonga, as "the group of death".

Venues have still to be fixed for that and other groups, but Wales will play their games in the principality and Scotland and Ireland will host three matches each. England against the favourites, Australia, is the obvious tournament opener, although with Wembley out of commission the ideal stage for that will involve some thought.

There is time to plan all this calmly and confidently, with the advantage of a record pounds 1m title sponsorship by Lincoln already in place. But, as Tunnicliffe pointed out, there are only 532 days before the likely start date of 28 October next year.

The problems and uncertainties surrounding Super League's bottom club, Hull Sharks, took another turn yesterday with the resignation of their chief executive, Brian Calam. Brian Johnson takes over, while club coach Peter Walsh's suspension has been made permanent. Steve Crooks is in charge of team matters until a new appointment is made.

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