Coaching in Pukapuka.

My visit to the island of Pukapuka in the Northern Cook Islands was probably the most adventurous undertaking during the years I spent as Technical Director to the Cook islands FA.   Pukapuka is a coral atoll situated more than a thousand kilometres North West of Rarotonga consisting of three small islets situated on the perimeter of a massive lagoon: it is one of the most remote of the Cook Islands.

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Pukapuka is one of the most remote in the Cook Islands group.

Amazingly there is evidence of human settlement going back almost 2,000 years; the remoteness of the island has led the people to adopt an ancient culture combined with its own language, distinct from Cook Island Maori.   The population of the Island at the time of my visit was approximately seven hundred people, spread between the three villages.   Pukapuka had one School and three Churches, with a single constable providing law enforcement for a basically self-governing community.   The Island/Atoll is so remote that the National Airline only visited on demand, which was rarely more often than monthly; a ship called to bring supplies more or less every six weeks.   There were no newspapers, with public announcements appearing on notice boards, however, people could watch video tapes on their TV sets.

Our small contingent of four CIFA officials to leave from Rarotonga consisted of President; Lee Harmon, Referee Instructor; Teariki Goodwin, Committee Member; Iku Tiaroa and myself as Technical Director.   We travelled in a small twin engine aircraft on a journey which would take almost five hours, the length of the journey making it necessary to refuel in Aitataki before setting out into the remote blue Pacific Ocean.

My studies in Anthropology at Auckland University had given me an insight into how the Pacific had been colonised.  I was fascinated to spot the occasional tiny Island, dwarfed by the vastness of the ocean.   This caused me to marvel at the navigational skills of those ancient Polynesian mariners, and how they located the then unknown Islands and Atolls.   At one stage we descended to fly over Palmerston Island; this was particularly interesting to me as the Island was first discovered (European discovery) by a fellow Yorkshireman; the illustrious Captain Cook in 1774.   To affirm the English connection a seaman called William Marsters arrived at Palmerston, along with his two Polynesian wives, during the mid-1800’s.   It seems that at some stage this randy Englishman acquired a third wife and raised a family of over twenty children.   Some of these descendants have remained on the Island, others have spread, in numbers, throughout the Cook Islands to New Zealand and other areas of the Pacific.   Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Palmerston is the only Island in the Cook group where English is the native language.

Palmerston Island

At one stage we descended to get a closer look at the atoll of Palmerston.

At the time of my visit to Pukapuka I was in the third year of my contract with the Cook Islands FA, therefore, I was therefore quite used to visiting remote Islands, however, the beauty of the fauna, contrasting with the deep blue of the sea, never ceased to delight me. This occasion was no different, and as we circled over the Island of Pukapuka I once again marvelled at the picturesque backdrop provided by this South Sea Island.

As the plane touched down on the bumpy runway I felt a certain apprehension, mingled with excitement, at the prospect of spending two weeks, or longer, in this distant isolated Island.   The pilot added to my uneasiness by telling me that he hoped to pick us up in approximately two weeks, but added, mischievously, that he couldn’t be sure.


My view from the plane as we prepare to land on Pukapuka.

After the usual warm and friendly welcome afforded by the Polynesian Islanders to their guests, our small party crossed the large lagoon on a crowded motor boat, to the main Islet where the three villages Ngake, Roto and Yato were located.   This was where we would spend most of our time on Pukapuka.   I was relieved to find that the accommodation provided for our small party was in the form of a private residence, with the added bonus of running water and a flush toilet (one of the few residences on the Island with these facilities at the time).


CIFA President Lee Harmon, Pukapuka FA President Billy Tiroa and me on arrival.

Pukapuka was the first Island in the northern group of the Cook Islands where football had been recently introduced, this being in the form of the five-a-side variety.   Therefore, it was my task to run a basic course for coaches, train the Islands the youth players, and visit the school to conduct sessions with the children.   In order for Pukapuka to be officially accepted into the CIFA structure, CIFA President Lee Harmon outlined certain criteria which had to be met, he also gave local officials an in-depth description of how the world body; FIFA, operated.   He made it clear to the Pukapuka Football Association that in order to justify their acceptance into the CIFA structure they would be expected to send an Under 15 team to the National Junior Championships in Rarotonga the following year.   The fact that this meant an eight day boat journey, on a merchant ship, didn’t deter their enthusiasm, so with this in mind I began training a selection of youngsters on the day following our arrival.


I began coaching a selection of youth players the day after my arrival.

Thankfully my sessions with these boys were scheduled later in the afternoon where the shade from the overhanging coconut trees gave me some comfort from the heat.   The players trained in bare feet on ground conditions which were very difficult.   This comprised of a mixture of sand, grass and coral rocks, however, as with most South Pacific Island youngsters these boys were very attentive and enthusiastic, attempting each of the basic techniques which I demonstrated.   The interpreters helped me to organise the group but once again I was dependent on my technical ability as an ex-player in order to give them a model to copy (see How Footballers Learn: ‘Modelling,’ on this website).

On the third day of our visit I spent the morning at the school, taking the various age groups, both boys and girls, in what could only be described as chaotic conditions; a hard bumpy surface, up to thirty kids in each session, with temperatures hovering well over 30 degrees.   Once again I was dependent on interpreters to help organise the children, but the excitement, laughing and screeching confirmed that they were enjoying their first taste of football training.


The heat, bumpy ground and large numbers of children made coaching at the School chaotic but enjoyable

The days passed quickly, mornings were spent at the school, afternoons and evenings taken up with sessions for the Youth team, followed by practical and theory sessions for the Coaches.   In excess of thirty Coaches took part, some of them were living on the small Islets out on the reef.   I was fascinated to see them picking their way along the reef, which encircled the large lagoon, on their way to get to the sessions on time.

Referees Instructor Teariki Goodwin, ran his basic course in conjunction with my coaching sessions, merging both these areas together in order to give the participants a basic grounding of the essentials of football.   The final day of practical sessions involved an 11 v 11 game where a large area was cleared for the first full game of football to take place on the Island of Pukapuka.

At the conclusion of our programme an evening was set aside whereby Coaching Certificates were presented to the participants.   This was followed by a function and feast proceeded by an evening of music and dancing; Pukapuka style.


Our party enjoyed an evening of feasting, drinking and dancing; Pukapuka style.

With most of our objectives achieved, our hosts showed even more of their hospitality by taking our contingent across the large lagoon to spend a couple of days feasting and relaxing on the outer Islets.


Lee Harmon contemplates a trip across the lagoon whilst I find a very effective way of keeping dry.

Our aircraft arrived somewhere near it’s schedule time to take us back to Rarotonga and it was with a sense of accomplishment and some regrets that we bid farewell to the people of Pukapuka……