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Cook Islands chase World Cup dream in qualifying match against Fiji

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The Cook Islands, ranked 46 in world rugby and with only 500 registered players, will play the biggest match in its history on Saturday when it meets Fiji in a knockout qualifier for the 2015 World Cup.

The winner of the match at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Fiji will take a place in Pool A at next year's Cup alongside hosts England, Australia, Wales and a yet-to-be-decided team.

Fiji is currently ranked 11th and has played at all but one of the seven World Cups since the tournament began in 1987, reaching the quarterfinals on two occasions. The home side can also call on professional players based around the world while the Cook Islands will depend on players who are mostly amateurs or part-time professionals.

Captain Stanley Wright, a prop based in France, is one of the Cook Islands' few fulltime pros.

"Playing in a Rugby World Cup is every little boy's dream and this is our chance to make our dream come true," Wright said. "It's now or never for the boys and we might not have this chance again so we will give it our best shot.

"We have never been in this situation before and it's one game away from playing in the World Cup."

The Cook Islands, who are just behind Switzerland in world rankings, reached the final qualifying match in the Oceania region by beating Papua New Guinea 37-31, the Solomon Islands 39-12 and Tahiti 38-5. Fiji was forced to qualify after its early elimination at the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

The Cook Islands were able to get a sense of the magnitude of their task by watching Fiji in action in its recent Pacific Nations Cup matches against Tonga — which it won 45-17 — and against Samoa — which it lost 18-13 last weekend.

"The Fijian team are fast, big and they have a very quality team," Wright said. "We have a mountain to climb and it's like the David and Goliath story."

Wright was born in the Cook Islands' capital Raratonga but played in New Zealand for Northland province and the Auckland Blues before joining Leinster in Ireland, then Stade Francais in France. The Cook Islands squad also includes centre Joel Rapana, who has played for the Queensland Reds, hooker Francis Smith, who plays for New Zealand's Tasman province, and Auckland winger Chay Raui.

Fiji is expected to field a full-strength side including a number of players based in France and New Zealand, but coach John McKee said Fiji does not expect an easy game.

"There is no such thing as walk in the park," McKee said. "For us it about focusing on our game and about what we need to do in the game that is where we can be very highly motivated."

France-based winger Sireli Bobo, Fiji's oldest player at 38, said it would be impossible to understate the importance of Saturday's match. The winner will likely play the opening match of next year's World Cup against England, in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham.

"This match is very important for us, even more than the Pacific Nations Cup," Bobo said. "We can play Tonga and Samoa next year again but this match will make us qualify for the Rugby World Cup in England."

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