(Main photo: photosport.nz).
It is 8am on a Monday morning in Rarotonga and it seems there isn’t a person on the island who is in a rush.
As mostly helmet-less scooter riders slowly make their way around the island, we sit sipping orange juice and discussing the state of international rugby league with Kevin Iro at a café opposite the airport.
The former Kiwi international – and arguably the most well-known identity who calls the island home – is decked out in a Cook Islands Rugby League singlet, his uniform of choice for days working in the Cook Islands Marine Park which he runs.
Unlike older brother Tony, who works as the recruitment and development manager for the New Zealand Warriors, Kevin has elected for a life away from professional footy post playing days.
Instead he’s expanding on his passion for the Cook Islands and preserving its incredibly scenic – and lucrative – marine environment.
“I have always loved the Cook Islands and I have been coming here since I was seven or eight,” Kevin says.
“I always loved the lagoon and swimming, and I would always notice changes to the water when I came back every year. Even when I was playing in England I would always make the effort to stop in to the Cook Islands on my way there or my way home.”
After winding up his professional club league career, which spanned 15 years at six different clubs, Iro returned home determined to make a difference.
“I could really see something needed to be done. With a friend of mine who owns a resort over here, we looked into the idea of setting up some marine protected areas,” he says.
“Long story short we lobbied government and they quickly went for it. The next thing you know we are declaring some of the biggest marine protected areas in the world.”
The size of the marine park now measures 1.9 million square kilometres and is a continual work in progress.
In between that Iro has also helped to lift up the profile and performance of rugby league in the Cook Islands, serving as a coach in the mid 2000’s and these days helping out with player identification and giving the tiny island nation an international presence.
“Right now I am mostly trying to organise international fixtures for the Cook Islands and also get Cook Island boys who are playing at the highest levels to play for the country,” Iro says.
“There are a lot of second, third or fourth generation Cook Islanders now who don’t have that link to the place until you get them here. Getting them to play for the Cook Islands is hard.”
With a professional career which saw him play in three different countries across two hemispheres, Iro is in a strong position to talk to players about maintaining cultural roots despite being a long way from home.
“Paul was such a unique character, an unforgettable character, because he didn’t really like league and he didn’t like training and never did train.”
When Iro – a man dubbed ‘The Beast’ long before anyone had heard of Manu Vatuvei – first burst onto the scene in 1987 it was a time when the New Zealand Rugby League still had a contractual hold on players, which restricted where they could play football overseas.
The decision to pursue a professional career back then for young Kiwis effectively meant having to travel halfway across the world to the UK, where you could play in the New Zealand off-season without consequence.
Iro immediately linked up with English heavyweights Wigan that year, going on to win the Challenge Cup in each of his four seasons with the club.
Despite three stints back in the Australian competition throughout his career, with Manly in 1991-92, Hunter Mariners in 1997 and the Auckland Warriors in 1998, it was in the UK that Iro truly felt at home.
“I did enjoy it in Australia but I just enjoyed the English atmosphere for every game and it was just a whole different scene,” Iro says.
“I really enjoyed the UK, Tony and I went up there and I loved the atmosphere and the lifestyle.
“While Australia was more intense with every game, in the UK there were more peaks because you played for several cups throughout the year and then there were local derbies and grudge matches.
“There was plenty to get up for, every couple of weeks there was something big going on.
“Particularly when we first went over there playing for good teams like Wigan; you may have played six cup finals in a season.
“In England there just seemed to be that many more peaks, but in Aussie it was one peak; the grand final.
“I remember the first Challenge Cup final I played in, in front of 112,000 people, you look back on things like that fondly.”
Iro suited up for Leeds between 1992 and 1996 and finished with three seasons at St Helens in Merseyside, winning two Super League and two Challenge Cup titles with the Saints.
Success went hand-in-hand with Iro’s English expeditions, and from his memory – which he admits is a little fuzzy given how many years have passed since he played – he never had a season in the UK without making some sort of competition final.
“Winning like that it is a habit…just like losing it seems contagious at the time,” he says.
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Iro played with some of the greatest Kiwis of all time through is career, including Dean Bell, Kurt Sorensen, Mark Graham and Stacey Jones.
But it was a prickly Yorkshireman who stands out as his favourite teammate.
“I really stuck a cord with Paul Newlove the Great Britain centre. We both car pooled together for a while because we lived near each other,” Iro says.
“Paul was such a unique character, an unforgettable character, because he didn’t really like league and he didn’t like training and never did train.
“All he would do was complain. Complain about how sore he was, how he hated league and didn’t want to go to training.
“He was a real grumpy old northerner, but put the ball in his hands and I used to think to myself, ‘mate, if the guy did like league and did train he would easily be anything he wanted’ he was that good.
“But he was just a freak on field, a really good player.
“But there were so many guys I loved playing with, I played with good mates of mine like Tony Kemp, George Mann, Gary Mercer, we all at one stage played in the same team or against each other.
“I built lifelong friendships with those guys.”
“We were just eating pasta and bread for every meal thinking it was doing us good…You look back at the photos now and my kids say to me, ‘mate, you were fat!'”
From the earliest days playing rugby league for the Glen Innes Falcons in East Auckland, Iro always knew he wanted to represent his country in the sport.
On mum Dale’s side of the family her father Leslie Pye represented the Kiwis between 1947 and 1948, while Dale’s cousin Ken Stirling was a constant in national teams through the 1970’s.
It’s no surprise then to learn that games in the black jersey stand out as the most memorable in Iro’s career, starting with a baptism of fire on a dusty field in Papua New Guinea.
“It was extremely scary up there, but when you are a young kid and it’s your opportunity you don’t really think of that, it’s only when you look back and think ‘jeez, how scary was that?’,” Iro says.
“But at the time you just think I am here to do a job. I look at it with pride really, my grandfather was a Kiwi as well so that was something to aim for growing up when you knew he had played for the Kiwis.
“That was a great honour and to know that you are doing your family proud as well.
“That year in 1987 it was a relatively new Kiwi team, then we came back from PNG and played Aussie and beat them. No one expected that, and it was the start of the Graham Lowe era and a great time to be playing.
“Beating Australia didn’t last long, I think we probably went another 12 on the trot losing before we picked up a win over them again.”
Iro would enjoy three victories against Australia from his 12 head-to-head matches with the old foe, one of which came in the Super League era in 1997.
But it’s the 1998 ANZAC Test which will forever
out. Iro was among the stars on that night at North Harbour Stadium, coming off the bench to score two crucial tries in a 22-16 win.
Seventeen years would pass between that and the next New Zealand victory in a mid-year Test against Australia.
“I actually didn’t realise that was the case until someone told me it had been 12 or 13 years since we beat Australia in an ANZAC Test. I thought ‘hey, I think I played in that one.'”
Among the highlights from the 1980’s and 1990’s was the coming together of amateur and professional ideas and players in New Zealand, forming an intriguing mash, the kind of which the sport will probably never see again.
From blue collar men who combined footy with earning a day-to-day wage, to players like Stacey Jones who never had to do anything but play league to pay the bills, Iro was plonked right in the middle of it.
“My age group was quite unique in that we did get to play with guys who had 9-5 jobs, and also guys who played footy for a full-time living,” Iro says.
“There were guys who came from the real working class backgrounds but made their way through. They had to get up early, do their own training, go to work and then go back and do more training at night.
“I played with all those sorts of guys and I was there when we were coming into that real professional era.
“We got to see both sides and it really was a huge change.
“The classic was the diets, it was pies or anything you wanted at the start, but right at the end we had nutritionists come in and tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat, it was a different era.
“I actually enjoyed it because I could see the merit in it. The funniest one when I think back to is that we went through this carb thing, they said ‘you have just got to eat so many carbs, just carbs, carbs, carbs’.
“That was like a marathon runner diet, so everyone was just getting fat basically. It was like every single meal was lasagne and all this.
“But right near the end they figured out a percentage needed to be carbs. But we were just eating pasta and bread for every meal thinking it was doing us good. It was quite hilarious.
“You look back at the photos now and my kids say to me, ‘mate, you were fat!’.”
These days on top of being an environmental crusader Iro has his hands full with six kids, ranging from three to 22, with four of them continuing to call Rarotonga home.
“The two oldest are into league, they love it. My 16-year-old plays at Mt Albert in Auckland and older boy Andre played for Northcote last year,” he says.
“The year before that I sent Andre across to Cootamundra in Australia to Mark Elia who was coaching over there.“
After switching over to rugby sevens to finish his career – and representing Cook Islands at the Commonwealth Games in what he describes as probably his overall career highlight – Iro continued playing elite sport past his 37th birthday.
Corey Rosser is the editor of kiwileaguecentral.com and the New Zealand Correspondent for NRL.com.