By David Riley
We are excited to present this excerpt from David Riley’s Cook Island Heroes, the most recent book in his Pasifika Heroes series. David Riley’s book covers a huge spectrum about what a ‘hero’ is, and mixes legends with true tales of heroic Cook Islanders. He includes leaders, scientists, educators, creative artists, writers, and sportspeople, and many more. David has chosen to share Kevin Iro with The Sapling, because he enjoyed writing about his achievements on and off the Rugby League field.
Kevin Iro (1968–) Rarotonga, Mangaia, Aitutaki
Kevin Iro is the Cook Islands’ most famous rugby league player. He played professionally in Australia and England and played in 37 test matches. He still loves rugby league … but he loves the Cook Islands even more.
Kevin was born in Auckland, into a rugby league family. His father played league and his grandfather and uncle both played for the Kiwis. His two favourite league players of all time are his dad, Roy, and his brother, Tony. It was only natural that Kevin would dream of one day representing his country while he played little league with the Glen Innes Falcons.
That day came in 1987, when Kevin was a 19 year old centre playing for Mt Albert in the Auckland competition … and the next day was chosen for the Kiwis!
His first test match was against Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. It was a rugged game that the Kiwis won 36-22. Kevin scored 20 points from three tries and four goals, a world record for the most points ever scored by a player in his first test match.
“I was really proud to do something my grandfather had done,” he says. “It was a great honour to know that you’re doing your family proud.”
Between 1987 and 1998, Kevin played 34 matches for the Kiwis. One of his most memorable games was in 1988, against Australia at North Harbour Stadium. Kevin scored two tries, including the winning try in the last minute of the game, to help the Kiwis beat the Kangaroos, 22-16.
Kevin was one of the only Cook Islanders playing professional rugby league in Australia in the 1990s. He played for Manly (1991-92), the Hunter Mariners (1997) and the Auckland Warriors (1998).
But his favourite time was playing in England. In 1987, he joined Wigan who were one of the best teams in the world. He won the Challenge Cup with Wigan in every season he played there.
Kevin also played for Leeds and St Helens in the English competition. He was a powerful centre who could bust through tackles, had a vicious fend, could offload with players all over him … and kick goals. No wonder the English media nicknamed him, “The Beast!”
He was a powerful centre who could bust through tackles, had a vicious fend, could offload with players all over him … and kick goals.
“I enjoyed it in Australia but I really enjoyed the atmosphere in England,” he says. “There were lots of big games during the season – different cups and grudge matches to play. It made it always exciting. The crowds made the atmosphere exciting too. In my first Challenge Cup final, I played in front of 112,000 people.”
Kevin is a proud Cook Islander. He captained the Cook Islands national team at the 2000 Rugby League World Cup. Later, he swapped codes and represented the Cooks in sevens rugby at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
“Playing for the Cook Islands was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. “To represent your country is a huge honour and when it’s at a major event like the Commonwealth Games, it makes it even more special.”
“To represent your country is a huge honour and when it’s at a major event like the Commonwealth Games, it makes it even more special.”
When Kevin was young, his family made regular trips to the Cook Islands. He loved swimming in the lagoons and beaches. As he grew older he kept in touch with his family and visited whenever he could.
When he retired from playing rugby league, he moved to Rarotonga with his wife and six children. He wanted his children to enjoy the Cook Islands lifestyle that he had experienced. “I’ve always loved the Cook Islands and I’ve been coming here since I was seven years old,” he says. “What a place to bring children up, where they can swim in the lagoon every day.”
But it didn’t take long for Kevin to see that things weren’t the same. Climate changes, buildings along the coast and over-fishing were destroying the coral reef and fishing grounds he had once enjoyed. “If we want our children to see pristine reefs now, we have to take them to the outer islands,” he says sadly.
But Kevin isn’t the kind of person to sit back when there’s a problem. He teamed up with a friend who owns a resort and they made a plan to set up a marine protected area.
The government supported the idea and in 2012, the Cook Islands Marine Park, later named Marae Moana, was launched. The park covers the whole two million square kilometres of ocean that belongs to the Cook Islands and is one of the biggest marine managed areas in the world. Some parts of the park are used for fishing, some for dive tourism and some are to be untouched.
Kevin went on the internet to get ideas from Cook Islanders around the world about how the park should be designed. “All Cook Islanders should be the park’s managers,” he says.
“All Cook Islanders should be the park’s managers,” he says.
Why does Marae Moana mean so much to Kevin? “Being a Cook Islander means caring for others,” he says. “It’s knowing that God has blessed our nation through our forefathers who willingly accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should chase hard after our dreams, but always put God first.”
“Apart from our people, the ocean is our most important resource. If we care for it and use its resources in a sustainable manner, we’ll leave behind a healthy environment, plenty of jobs and wealth for future generations.”
Cook Islands Heroes
By David Riley
Published by Reading Warrior