Wales’ poor World Cup campaign has ended with a third successive defeat – but not before they went down fighting in Neath.
With a final score of 28-24, the Cook Islands ultimately posted their first World Cup victory at the sixth attempt, yet they had to hang on despite building a 22-4 lead just after half-time.
Centre Keith Lulia ran the show for his team, scoring a first-half try, while Isaac John, Daniel Fepuleai, Dominique Peyroux and Jonathon Ford also touched down, with Chris Taripo kicking four goals.
Wales, though, threatened a second-half revival when Lloyd White, Christiaan Roets (two) and Rhodri Lloyd claimed tries following Rob Massam’s first-half score, while White and Danny Jones landed one goal apiece, but it proved too little too late.
Wales had exited the tournament with indecent haste, failing to recover from their Millennium Stadium defeat against Italy a fortnight ago before being beaten by the United States in Wrexham and conceding 56 points across both games.
They had plenty of incentive to bow out on a high, though, with Jordan James equalling the Wales cap record of 30 appearances before retiring from the international game, while prop Neil Budworth also bade Wales colours farewell.
The Cook Islands dominated early territory, and they deservedly went ahead after eight minutes when hooker Fepuleai powered over from close range.
Taripo added the extras, and Wales could have few complaints, but they stirred into life six minutes later as full-back Elliot Kear made a telling entry into the line, found Rhys Evans in support and Massam finished off.
It was a strong response by the home team, which knocked the Cook Islands out of their initial rhythm, but Lulia had developed into the game’s dominant figure.
His initial break nine minutes before half-time caused panic stations in the Wales defence, and he crossed unopposed.
In contrast to Wales, who lacked composure in the final third, the Cook Islands proved emphatic finishers, and John skipped his way across for try number three.
Taripo’s third goal from four attempts left Wales trailing 22-4 and seemingly facing a damage-limitation exercise for the remainder of a game.
But the hosts had other ideas, and fought back through tries during an impressive eight-minute spell for White and Roets that breathed life into a contest the Cook Islands appeared to have control of.
An exciting finish was cranked up another notch when Lloyd scored 14 minutes from time, but the Cook Islands responded with Ford’s well-worked try that finally closed off any comeback route.