‘My focus has shifted’: Kevin Iro on evolving from rugby league star to ocean advocate | Rugby League World Cup 2021

On the field, they called him The Beast. It was a nickname well earned. Explosive runs through half-gaps in midfield, bone-crunching tackles and a haul of almost 200 elite-level tries, including one in the 1999 Super League final for St Helens, cemented Kevin Iro’s reputation across two decades as a rugby league star.

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” he says of a career that ended in 2006 wearing the colours of his native Cook Islands, six years after he captained his country in their debut World Cup. “I’ve moved on. My focus has shifted.”

Indeed it has. Today, Iro is confronting a much bigger, and more important challenge than side-stepping a winger. He is the face of Marae Moana, a protected marine park that covers more than 1.9m square kilometres around the 15 islands of the Cook Islands. For his work in conceptualising the conservation site in 2010, and for his continued devotion to safeguarding marine life, Iro was awarded the Seacology Prize for 2022 by the American nonprofit that seeks to preserve island ecosystems.

“Of course I’m proud of the recognition,” Iro says. “But I’m mostly proud to accept the award on behalf of my family, on behalf of all the people of Cook Islands and the Pacific, and for all our ancestors who were so close to the ocean, and who knew how sacred it is.”

In an almost hour-long conversation concerning the protection of our planet and ensuring its future, the ancient past is often brought up. For Iro, Marae Moana is not just an attempt to reverse the depletion of coral – down to 30% of what it was around some areas of the Cook Islands in the 1980s – or the destruction caused by overfishing in the region. By ensuring the survival of his country’s best resource, Iro and his team are hoping to recalibrate the way their history is understood.

Iro explains that when he was growing up in Auckland his history teachers told stories of emaciated men tumbling from rickety boats as they fortuitously stumbled upon an island in the Pacific Ocean. He was reared with this image of his forebears in his mind but hopes his children will have a different view of their culture.

“The truth is completely different,” he says. “Our ancestors knew exactly where they were going. They founded every island in the Pacific because they were so in tune with the ocean. They could read the currents, study the movement of birds and fish. In order for us to truly respect and give back to the sacredness of that ocean, we need to relearn this connection.”

Kevin Iro in action for the Cook Islands at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Kevin Iro in action for the Cook Islands at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Iro himself needed re-education, though he stumbled on to his new path by chance. His sport took him around the world, with stints in New Zealand (Mount Albert, Auckland Warriors), England (Wigan, Leeds, St Helens) and Australia (Manly Sea Eagles, Hunter Mariners). Every time he returned home he would notice slight changes. The fish he speared in the lagoon were less abundant and smaller. There were more boats and trawlers on the horizon. The reefs were losing their colour.

His cousins who lived locally were unaware of the gradual degradation. Recognising that the fish is often the last to discover the water, Iro, who was serving on the Cook Islands tourism board, came up with a radical idea.

“We’re a small country of small islands, but the EEZ [exclusive economic zone] around us is massive,” he says. “We had to treat this blue continent with the same mindset as the land we build our homes on. I started with tourism, which makes up 70% of our economy. But it’s more than just funds now. We’re setting an example.”

In our email exchange before this interview, Iro stated that he has been “trying to lose the rugby tag” for some time. He does, however, acknowledge sport’s power to thrust difficult conversations into homes that might not have them otherwise. And there is no more pressing matter than the climate crisis, about which Iro says that, “those of us in the Pacific will experience before most other places”.

It is only when I raise his son, Kayal, that Iro’s enthusiasm to talk about sport increases. “We’re so proud of him,” he says of the 20-year-old who started at fullback in the Cook Islands’ tournament opener against Wales last week, helping his side to a 18-12 win. “He’s only the second player with an NRL contract who was born on the Cook Islands.”

That is not the only familial connection that Iro has with the current squad. His brother Tony, who had spells with Manly, Sydney City Roosters and South Sydney, coaches the team, just as Iro himself has done before.

Family is at the core of Iro’s story. “It’s all we’ve got,” he says. “We have to educate the next generation, we have to show them the way and remind them of what’s come before. But we need to protect them and preserve the beauty in the world for them. I feel that responsibility. We all should.”

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