If your roster was packed with 28 internationals, you would think respect would be easily won.
That should be the case but, after one of the most extraordinary maiden seasons in Super Rugby’s 27-year history, Moana Pasifika know results are the hard currency of high performance. Two wins from 14 games tells little of the journey that saw three ‘storm weeks’ and eight matches played on short turnarounds. All that off the back of a six-week preseason, which was about six weeks too short. The glass-half-full lens, which I am taking with this team, indicates that they did remarkably well to be competitive for large tracts of most games and, with a touch more luck and discipline, could have won 3-4 other games. That would have been enough to reach the desired goal of the top eight playoffs.
Moana Pasifika and close observers know these were valid reasons, not excuses, for the dearth of victories in 2022. But equally, and fingers crossed Covid-19 does not again rear its ugly head, the group knows expectations are higher now.
That’s why they are fitter and look very cohesive and tight. That was just what I gleaned from a short observation of the team on a media day in the Auckland heat of January. We are going to see a lot of some of these faces in 2023, many of whom will feature for Manu Samoa or Tonga’s Ikale Tahi later in the year at Rugby World Cup. So why would expectations not be higher? The playoffs are achievable, so these players will need to nail their trans-Tasman match-ups as well as pinch the odd New Zealand scalp, as they did in such joyous fashion in beating the Hurricanes via a golden point try to Danny Toala. The hope is that the crowds return to Mt Smart in decent numbers and that they can average 25-30 points a game, up from 19, and concede far less than 76 tries as they did in 2022. All this will help, as will holding their discipline when fatigue sets in late in matches.
Defence coach Dale MacLeod will be working hard on staunching the flow, while Damian Karauna has joined the coaching staff to help with the skills and the back attack. Filo Tiatia and Pauliasi Manu will drill the forwards.
Second-year head coach Aaron Mauger looks like a man who has seen a bit of sun over summer and just loves what he’s doing. More importantly, he believes in what he’s doing. That goes for his players, too.
The cultural building blocks are in place and so, too, is this team as a pathway to international Pacific representation. Some 37 of the 38 are eligible for, or captured by, an island nation. Lincoln McClutchie, who has Māori blood, is the sole player outside that 37. A Moana Pasifika Under 20 team will be up and running from next month, which was not the case in 2022. This is fast becoming a team that young Pasifika men can aspire to reach.
Along with the Blues, Moana Pasifika would have the most settled roster of any of the 12 teams, which shows that many were contracted to two or multi-year deals and they are happy here.
“Continuity is really important for us. We’re essentially the same team, but it’s a different team in terms of that maturity, so we’re excited about where we can take this group,” says Mauger.
“There’s a real movement happening here. The challenge is to keep delivering, turning those two wins into more wins.”
Conditioning is a key plank. In 2022, the group only assembled on January 5, so how one could expect miracles from a six-week lead-in as a start-up franchise is a moot point. But Mauger says the group is a lot further ahead, much fitter and readier for the rigours of Super Rugby.
“It’s been really noticeable. One year can make a massive difference in the career of a player. Some of our boys are a lot more professionally mature and have had maybe 20 more first-class games under their belt.”
Funnily enough, the best bronco time went to Steelers No 10 Riley Hohepa, who was training as cover during the pre-season. But several others have posted PBs.
“If our physical capacity was better, we could have won 4-5 games and potentially even finished in the top half of the table,” says Mauger.
“We’re working hard on shifting the mentality for what is acceptable at club or even NPC level. If we’re brutally honest, we couldn’t handle the intensity when we got taken to the wall last year.”
In what was perhaps an indication of the brutal schedule during their first season, not as many of the roster shone during the NPC as had done so in 2021. The Hawke’s Bay Magpies boys, for example, so vibrant in 2021, looked a little battle-weary in 2022.
Mauger is not too concerned at that situation. “We’ve got a really good feel for where our athletes are at – some needed more managed integration, some more time with staff. All these boys need a preseason. A lot are young men learning to be professional. Our job is to show them what that looks like.”
To the roster now, and Willy Havili did some good things at fullback in his 11 games last year, but he mainly operated at No 10 for the Tasman Mako. Mauger sees him as a 15/10. The wings are stacked. Tima Fainga’anuku emerged as the top strike force on the flanks and stood out in a poor Manawatū Turbos outfit. Timoci Tavatavanawai will want a big campaign, as will Lolagi Visinia, who is seen as more of a wing/fullback. Do not forget the Magpies duo of Anzelo Tuitavuki and Neria Foma’i, neither of whom saw extensive game time. Foma’i can also play in the midfield, where there is talent and X-factor aplenty.
Levi Aumua should be the starting centre, and could operate alongside Manu Samoa’s Henry Taefu, while Danny Toala has versatility. D’Angelo Leuila is an option at No 12 if they seek a twoplaymaker set-up.
There is competition in the halves and, while Ere Enari and Jonathan Taumateine have the experience, Mauger says young Auckland No 9 Manu Paea has come of age.
“Last year was about development for him, but now we see him genuinely as one of three halfbacks. He’s put in a PB bronco and is keeping Ere and JT on their toes.”
Sam Wye of Auckland has also trained with the squad.
The old warhorse Jack Lam, now 35, has had complications from surgery on his Achilles tendon, so no one quite knows when exactly he will be able to play. In the meantime, it looks like the No 8 jersey could be between Sione Tuipulotu or Lotu Inisi, both talents who are seeking consistency.
Solomone Funaki did well in 2022, the seven/six scoring a team-high four tries. He and Alamanda Motuga, back from injury, are the options for the openside position.
“Solomone is super tough, a really good defender. He’s well positioned for another strong year,” says Mauger.
Penitoa Finau can also do a job on the blindside, while Mike Curry would offer good aerial skills at six.
Samuel Slade would probably like to play at No 6, but Mauger sees him more as a lock. The same is true for his Steelers teammate Alex McRobbie, who played blindside, in the main, in the NPC, but has packed on some beef to his lanky frame and now hits 119kg. Mahonri Ngakuru won a full contract off the back of a solid NPC.
“We gave him direction. We dangled the carrot and he had a good chomp,” quips Mauger.
Seven props have been named, partly as insurance for captain Sekope Kepu, who is still rehabbing his Achilles after snapping the tendon during the NPC. Kepu should be back by April but is apparently already in decent nick. Loosehead Isi Tu’ungafasi should be amped after injury ruined his entire 2022 season. Ezekiel Lindenmuth was the only Moana Pasifika player to appear in 13 matches, but he still has much to prove at this level.
Abraham Pole might be in pole position, ahem, for the No 1 jersey, having scored four tries last season and holding his own in the scrums.
“He was one of the finds of the year for us. He was lucky enough to spend some time with the Crusaders and was our No 1 loosehead by the end of the year. He threw the gauntlet down to the others,” Mauger says.
Take your pick of Ray Niuia, Sam Moli or Luteru Tolai at hooker. All have their qualities, not just latching onto the lineout drive, and all had their moments last season.
Mauger has to balance the performance versus outcome goals, but he is clear about where this team is capable of getting to in 2023.
“We want to be playing finals footy and we’re probably capable if we get it right. There are still a few ifs, so we have to earn the right to be there,” he says.
Moana Pasifika are also now fully self-sufficient with their facilities, no longer sharing a gym with the NRL Warriors, and have their own training ground next to the admin block. All the pieces are coming together for this franchise. Watch them closely this season and circle the Fijian Drua at Mt Smart on February 25 and the Reds in Apia on April 14 as big clashes.
Lealiifano, who is now eligible for Samoa, scored 58 points from his 11 games last season, but those bare stats do not highlight his experience and leadership, which were vital to this fledgling team.
The 35-year-old did not play NPC, a joint decision, says Mauger, to allow his body to rebuild after a long-term Achilles tendon injury in 2021. His kicking and nous will again be vital to Moana Pasi fika, even with Lincoln McClutchie and D’Angelo Leuila keeping him honest for his starting spot.
The best buy is the only buy. Moana Pasifika signed this industrious loose forward out of the Pacific Combine last August, but he has come highly recommended from Brian Lima, coach of the Samoa Sevens.
The 15s game is relatively new to him, but Mauger sees him as being in the selection mix as a six/seven. Fai’ilagi has nice soft skills, good hands and can spring in the lineout.
“He’s a really engaged learner, so he’s picking things up fast,” Mauger says.
With two tries from 10 starts at No 8 last season, Time-Stowers was gold for Moana Pasifika.
His go-forward and work-rate saw him as the most consistent of the pack. The problem was that he had only signed a one-year deal and wasn’t able to pick up an NPC contract in the northern region as hoped. So off he went to Benetton in Treviso, Italy, to join the likes of Jacob Umaga, Siua Maile, Toa Halafihi and Scott Scrafton.
The hope is that Sione Tuipulotu or Lotu Inisi pick up the slack at the boot of the scrum because Time-Stowers will be badly missed.
Willy Havili (Tasman, 11 Moanan Pasifika caps)
Lolagi Visinia (Hawke’s Bay, 4)
Neria Foma’i (Hawke’s Bay, 5)
Tomasi Alosio (Tasman, 3)
Timoci Tavatavanawai (Tasman, 8)
Tima Fainga’anuku (Manawatū, 9)
Anzelo Tuitavuki (Hawke’s Bay, 3)
Levi Aumua (Tasman, 9)
Danny Toala (Hawke’s Bay, 9)
Henry Taefu (North Harbour, 8)
Fine Inisi (North Harbour, 9)
Christian Lealiifano (Samoa, 11)
Lincoln McClutchie (Hawke’s Bay, 12)
D’Angelo Leuila (Waikato, 1)
Ereatara Enari (Hawke’s Bay, 11)
Jonathan Taumateine (Counties Manukau, 10)
Manu Paea (Auckland, 4)
Jack Lam (Waikato, 6)
Lotu Inisi (North Harbour, 1)
Sione Tuipulotu (Hawke’s Bay, 10)
Alamanda Motuga (Counties Manukau, 8)
Solomone Funaki (Hawke’s Bay, 10)
Penitoa Finau (Bay of Plenty, 4)
Miracle Fai’ilagi (Samoa, 0)
Mike Curry (North Harbour, 8)
Samuel Slade (Counties Manukau, 9)
Alex McRobbie (Counties Manukau, 11)
Mahonri Ngakuru (Tasman, 5)
Mike McKee (Southland, 2)
Sekope Kepu (Counties Manukau, 10, c)
Joe Apikotoa (Hawke’s Bay, 11)
Chris Apoua (Southland, 5)
Tau Koloamatangi (Otago, 6)
Ezekiel Lindenmuth (Counties Manukau, 13)
Isi Tu’ungafasi (Tasman, 0)
Abraham Pole (Otago, 9)
Ray Niuia (Manawatū, 8)
Sam Moli (Tasman, 11)
Luteru Tolai (North Harbour, 9)
Filo Tiatia, Dale MacLeod, Damian Karauna, Pauliasi Manu
Fai’ilagi (Samoa Sevens)
Nigel Ah Wong, Xavier Cowley-Tuioti, Niko Jones, Josh Kaifa, Solomone Kata (Exeter, England), Don Lolo, Dwayne Polataivao, Veikoso Poloniati (Racing 92, France), Joe Royal, Henry Time-Stowers (Benetton, Italy)
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