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North Otago internationals . . . Cook Island rugby internationals Matt Maui (left, 22) and Adyn Anguna (20) relished the opportunity to be in the World Cup qualifying squad for their home nation. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

Embracing their culture has made Matt Maui and Adyn Anguna better rugby players.

Maui and Anguna, who both played for Excelsior this season, made their debuts for their home nation, the Cook Islands, this year for its World Cup qualifying campaign.

They were part of a 40-man squad, made up of players living in the Cook Islands, and others based around New Zealand and Australia.

The Cook Islands played a warm-up match against the Tasman Makos, going down 31-24, and another against New Zealand under-20s, losing 73-0.

While Maui (22) and Anguna (20) were not selected for the qualifying match in which the Cook Islands lost 54-10 to Tonga, the whole experience had been a blessing, they said.

“It was just being around high-profile players, learning from their knowledge of the game,” Maui said.

Former All Black and Highlanders first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga was the Cook Islands backs coach.

As a fullback, Maui enjoyed absorbing as much as he could from one of the best.

“It was unreal. Just knowing his game, and his knowledge, he really helped us each in our positions. He gave one-on-one notes skill-wise and improvements.”

It was off the field where the pair found the most satisfaction, linking up with players and celebrating their heritage together.

Many players were born in the Cook Islands, but grew up in New Zealand or Australia. The squad embraced cultural activities, performed music together, and helped teach other players about their heritage and ancestry.

Adding that element helped bring the team together, Maui said.

“It got to a point where the culture came in, the music came in, then the bonding of the brothers came together. That showed in the game as well, the connection was right there.”

It was a moment Anguna embraced as well.

“Seeing the boys, who never grew up in the Cook Islands, have an opportunity to witness their culture … they were pretty surprised and amazed at that, which got us excited for them to know their culture,” Anguna said.

Both Anguna and Maui grew up in the Cook Islands, and had stints in Australia playing rugby union and rugby league, before moving to Oamaru earlier this year for rugby opportunities.

They were loving life in the “small town”, and it had been topped off with their selection in the North Otago Heartland team.

The team was training hard in preparation for the season, and they were loving linking up with other club players.

“I’m really enjoying it. Getting to know some of the other boys, when we were enemies at first – it’s pretty good,” Anguna said.

They were determined to work hard at a Heartland level, representing North Otago in the Meads Cup competition, and continue to get recognised in the New Zealand system.