The Cook Islands are set to replace Lebanon in next year’s mid-season Tests and will join New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea in the 2020 Oceania Cup.
The newly created Oceania Cup began last Saturday night, with the Kiwis defeating Tonga and Samoa beating PNG in round one matches, and will continue at the end of this season when Australia and Fiji join the tournament.
The Kangaroos will host the Kiwis at WIN Stadium on October 25 and meet Tonga a week later as part of a triple-header at Eden Park in Auckland.
However, Australia is touring Britain at the end of the 2020 season so the Kangaroos can't play in the Oceania Cup and their place will be taken by Cook Islands, who defeated South Africa in a World Cup qualifier at Wentworthville last Friday night.
The mid-season Pacific Test has been absorbed into the Oceania Cup and Samoa played PNG as part of a triple-header at Leichhardt Oval last Saturday night, which also featured an invitational match between Fiji and Lebanon and Fiji’s first women’s Test against PNG Orchids.
Despite much more being at stake in the Samoa-PNG match, the event was largely overshadowed by a dispute between Lebanon players and their governing body and it is unclear whether the Cedars will be invited to play during next year’s stand-alone representative weekend. England Knights, Vanuatu and Niue have been mentioned as possible opponents.
New Zealand is again expected to play Tonga, with the winner of this year's Oceania Cup Pool B between Fiji, Samoa and PNG to be promoted to join them in Pool A next season.
Cook Islands will join Pool B and all six nations are expected to play mid-year and at the end of the season, with some 2020 Oceania Cup matches likely to be in North Queensland and possibly Papua New Guinea.
RLIF CEO Nigel Wood told NRL.com last week that it was hoped Oceania Cup matches could also be played in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga after the 2021 World Cup.
Cook Islands are hoping to join their Pacific neighbours in the World Cup and will travel to Florida to meet USA on November 16 in a play-off for the final position in the 16-team tournament.
St George Illawarra rookie Steven Marsters believes Cook Islands could field a strong team at the World Cup and hopes to get the chance to play alongside his cousin Esan, who played for the Kiwis in last Saturday night’s 34-12 defeat of Tonga before a crowd of 23,000 at Mt Smart Stadium.
Marsters, whose nine goals for the Tony Iro-coached team in the 66-6 defeat of South Africa was a Cook Islands record, dedicated his Test debut to his late grand father and revealed that Esan’s mother had been in tears after he was selected.
“I finally got the opportunity to represent my grandfather’s side of the family and hopefully I get to do it with my cousin soon. I was telling him to come over and he was saying 'the Kiwis are my priority at the moment’, Marsters said.
“My grandfather passed away at the end of last year so it was definitely a privilege for me and my family [to play for Cook Islands], especially my Mum and Aunty, who is Esan’s Mum. My Aunty called me up two days before the game and she broke down in tears. They are so proud. I can’t wait for the game in the US. I definitely want to win that game because I want to go to the World Cup. That is one of my aims.”
The likes of Dylan Napa, Alex Glenn, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Zane Tetavano, Kenny Edwards and Anthony Gelling could be available for the World Cup qualifier, while Kiwi internationals Jordan Rapana, Joey Manu and Esan Marsters are also eligible for Cook Islands, along with Valentine Holmes.
“It shows how much talent we could have in our team and our culture. We have potential and three of the backline for the Kiwis are Kukis so that is a big wrap for us,” Marsters said.
“If we win this next game it will put us back on the map."