Cook Islands down Wales to win their Rugby League World Cup opener
Tries from Rhodri Lloyd and Ollie Olds either side of an Anthony Gelling effort gave the predominantly part-time Welsh a 12-8 interval lead on a chilly evening at Leigh Sports Village.
The tide began to turn after the break and back-to-back scores from Davvy Moale and Steve Marsters snatched victory for a Cook Islands side boasting plenty of top-level experience in the UK and Australia.
Wales – without a win at a World Cup tournament since 2000 and with just one Super League player in their matchday squad in Salford’s Rhys Williams – had always known they were clear underdogs.
Yet, well-drilled by veteran coach John Kear, they produced a stirring display and almost grabbed a potentially game-levelling try in the last minute.
Wales started energetically and, after twice stretching the Cook Islands, made the pressure count in the 13th minute when Swinton’s Lloyd scooped up a well-weighted kick from Josh Ralph to touch down.
The Kukis responded with Kayal Iro, Zane Tetevano and Steve Marsters all threatening before Tepai Moeroa barged over only to lose possession.
They levelled the scores when Huddersfield-bound Esan Marsters burst through to send former Wigan and Warrington centre Gelling racing clear under the posts.
Wales reclaimed the lead with a fine individual try from Olds. The Bridgend-born former South Wales Scorpions half-back, who is now playing semi-professionally in Australia after coming out of retirement, created space with a dummy and powered to the line.
Matty Fozard landed his second conversion but a penalty from Steve Marsters, adding to an earlier goal, cut the deficit to 12-8 at the break.
The Cook Islands looked to step up the tempo after the break but Wales initially held firm with Dominique Peyroux defusing one dangerous attack with an interception.
Wales could not hold out indefinitely and, after the Cook Islands had a try disallowed for a knock-on, the game turned with two scores in quick succession.
South Sydney’s Moale grabbed the first of them from close range from a Jon Ford pass before Steve Marsters rose in the corner to claim a high kick and touch down. Steve Marsters landed one of the conversions to put his side in sight of victory.
Wales almost produced a dramatic finish after Lloyd charged down a kick but Caleb Aekins opted not to pass with a try for the taking out wide and the chance was lost.
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Cymru put up such a good fight and really should have gone over in the 79th minute!