On paper, Toa Samoa would have been favourites to put a cricket score onto the Cook Islands.
Despite bursting with top-tier NRL talent and far more high level experience than their counterparts, the game see-sawed in momentum consistently and the Kukis were left to lament a number of missed opportunities.
A total of eight debutants would appear for Samoa and the scoring was opened in the sixth minute as a slick backline movement saw Josh Schuster chalking up his first try assist of the night.
He was able to draw in defenders and dished a pass onto a sharp Taylan May who had a standout game, scoring two tries and posting three line breaks.
Local Campbelltown boy David Nofoaluma ignited what would eventuate into a booming night in the tenth minute as he continued to demonstrate a career-long ability to produce something from nothing, standing up three defenders to plonk the ball down in the corner.
New Zealand Warriors utility Chanel Harris-Tavita and Penrith Panthers fullback Charlie Staines with quick-handed assists would trouble the Kukis all night.
Despite having an off night with his goal kicks, Anthony Milford had his in-play kicking game on song, highlighting some inexperience at the back with a chip over the top resulting in an incredible bounce for Izack Tago to score his first in his national strip.
Evidence of a mounting load of possession saw a Cook Islands failure to shut down the play, after promotions from Harris-Tavita and May clicked to find South Sydney Rabbitohs winger Jaxson Paulo giving his second try assist of the night to Nofoaluma out wide.
The Manly Sea Eagles will nervously await the next few days as their 2022 hero Josh Aloiai got his head in the wrong position attempting a tackle and saw stars, finishing his night in the twenty fifth minute.
The Cook Islands were playing with pride and enthusiasm but their lack of polish saw them trudge to the sheds at half time, down 20-6.
Their coach Tony Iro must have inspired them to another level as they held off Samoa and recorded their first try in the fifty fifth minute.
Gold Coast Titans centre Esan Marsters straightened his team and found a charging Rabbitoh in Davvy Moale who dazzled with a dynamite left step to crash over next to the posts.
Momentum was absolutely with the Cook Islands and they were lining up to score when the local Tiger Nofoaluma struck again to break Kuki hearts, stealing a bullet pass from Reece Joyce to streak 90m to plant the ball under the posts.
A scheming Schuster was racking up line breaks for fun when he found himself once again in the clear, summing up his options and deciding to punt a speculator into the in-goal where two Samoans were racing each other for the meat pie – May nabbing the honours from Harris-Tavita.
The game was gone, yet the Cook Islanders never stopped trying.
The Marsters brothers teamed up as Esan twisted his way through the line to spread a lovely ball out to find his brother Steven on the wing.
In a game to remember, Schuster toyed with the defensive line again in the seventy-first minute, searching for the weak link in the defensive line and barging through.
He once again kept a cool head to identify the best option, this time a grubber kick for a flying Nofoaluma to swoop and collect his fourth try of the night.
Rubbing salt into the wound, it would be the Samoan centre Paulo, after having set up two tries, scoring one of his own by intercepting another stray Cook Islands pass and burning 40m in second gear to slide over under the posts, wrapping up the game 42-12.
A lop-sided score line was not indicative of a match which was thoroughly competitive.
And while on paper, all that had been predicted had come to pass, the Cook Islanders would head to the sheds with their heads held high, with the echoes of a packed Campbelltown Stadium cheering their efforts.
Although it was one of the youngest teams he has been associated with, Samoan coach Matt Parish admits they were both good and bad in patches.
“I thought it was good, we had a young team, probably the youngest team I’ve been associated with,” Parish said.
“We started well and finished well but lost our way a little bit in the middle.”
Still one of the developing Island nations when it comes to international footy, Cook Islands coach Tony Iro was pleased with the fight shown by his side.
“It probably shows it’s a relatively new squad. I was pleased with their fight,” said Iro.
“When we didn’t have a lot of footy, things were looking a bit ugly but the boys fought back.”
NRL News Player of the Game
3. Josh Schuster (Samoa)
2. David Nofoaluma (Samoa)
1. Izack Tago (Samoa)