Liam Napier tries to put together the early pieces of the Moana Pasifika puzzle with the help of the new head coach.
Moana Pasifika could hardly have confronted more challenges in attempting to get a start-up Super Rugby franchise off the ground.
From lack of time to Covid-19, plus assembling a fresh management team, competitive squad and home base, there are plenty of hurdles to clear as the franchise’s inaugural 2022 season fast approaches.
Given that backdrop, you might expect to find a sense of trepidation engulfing those working feverishly behind the scenes.
When Rugby News catches up with foundation coach Aaron Mauger, who has signed on for three years, he instead radiates anticipation and pride about the project before him.
Mauger – the former Highlanders and Leicester head coach, and Crusaders and Samoa assistant, whose nana hailed from Rarotonga via Tahiti – helped guide Moana Pasifika in its maiden match against New Zealand Maori last year. He never saw himself continuing in the role, though – not until meeting Sir Michael Jones, Sir Bryan Williams and Kevin Senio at Eden Park’s NZ Barbarians club lounge in June.
“I was really content with where I was at. I was happy to not be involved in rugby,” Mauger says.
“This is one of the few jobs, certainly the only head coaching role, I would have taken on. It’s the most challenging one around the world but I feel really passionate about it. It’s a chance to represent my own cultural heritage.
“It’s feeding the soul. Everyone understands the magnitude of the challenge and everyone is realistic but they’re excited by the opportunities to represent our families and cultures and try to forge our own legacy.”
There’s no hiding the difficulties Moana Pasifika face in forming a competitive squad in year one. Christian Lealiifano, the 34-year-old former Wallabies playmaker, and former Crusader turned Hawke’s Bay halfback Ere Enari are handy signings. It has also recruited Western Force midfielder Henry Taefu and fellow Samoan Test backs Tomasi Alosio and Neria Foma’i, at the time of writing, along with former Wallaby centurion prop Sekope Kepu.
Delays in satisfying financial criteria and Auckland’s Covid-19 lockdown, which cut short their three NPC teams’ campaigns and therefore closed the shop window to assess players, adds further constraints to recruitment.
“It’s had its challenges building from scratch and also being behind the eight ball. Ideally, we would have met the criteria for a licence earlier in the year and have a bit more time with our planning, but it is what it is.
“For some people like Sir Beegee it’s been 26 years they’ve been aiming for this. For this to become a reality is really exciting. It’s been awesome to see the amount of people who have voluntarily put their hand up to get us off the ground. Without that we wouldn’t be where we are.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do but we’re proud of the work we have done. It’s realising the opportunity ahead of us that makes people want to dig in and get it right.
“All of our players are at different stages in their careers. Some of them have a lot of Super Rugby experience; some of them have a little, some have been fringe players and we’ve got quite a few where this will be their first year.
“Where they find common ground is through their connection. At some stage through their heritage someone from their family has decided to come out to New Zealand and make a home here. It’s been awesome listening to all the stories of where our guys are from, who they represent back in their islands and villages.”
Time frames from here remain tight. With the NPC pushed back a month, the Super Rugby pre-season window has been compromised, which will affect Moana Pasifika more than anyone.
Mauger hopes to hold a pre-Christmas connection camp – where that takes place depends on Auckland’s Covid landscape – before launching into the month-long training block in January.
At best he will have seven weeks with the full squad before their maiden competition match.
“That week is critical for us before we get into the rugby because it will provide the common ground and bring our squad together.
“It will roll around pretty fast; we’re not going to have a lot of time together, so we’ll prioritise what we need to hit the ground running. We won’t have everything set up as much as we’d like but we’ll do what we can with what we’ve got and we’ll be ready.”
In year one, Lealiifano is Moana Pasifika’s only player from outside New Zealand, which is in large part due to the much-maligned MIQ online lottery system. Mauger confirmed that the squad will, however, meet stipulations for 30 of the 38 players to be eligible for the Pacific nations.
“That’s been a big inhibitor, looking at players outside of New Zealand and trying to get them in.
“A big part of our mandate is to make sure we’re providing a pathway for our Pacific Island nations. It’s important we get that right and live our vision there. It’s forced us to dig a bit deeper and look at guys who aren’t playing a massive amount of rugby at the highest level – a lot of players on the fringes.
“These guys need an opportunity to have a full season in a professional environment. We’ll see them flourish, some straight away. Others will probably take a year or two to get that foundation under their belt.”
It doesn’t get tougher than walking into regular fixtures against the five established New Zealand Super Rugby teams, and that’s perhaps why Mauger is reluctant to set firm aspirations around reaching the top eight playoffs.
With inexperience scattered throughout the squad, being competitive will be the initial aim. Lessons may be brutal but, in time, the team should progress through growing pains.
“Once we bring everything together, we’ll be in a better position to target those more tangible outcomes. We can control a clear identity. We’re going to have some special athletes, a lot of power and physicality, so that’s something we want to base our game around. Us doing things our way as well. You look at the game of footy and there’s a lot of similarity in how teams are playing. It’s an opportunity to stamp our mark on the competition with our own flavour.”
Despite the daunting task, Mauger celebrates the mere fact Moana Pasifika has a starting point many long hoped, but doubted, would ever arrive.
Since the confirmation of Moana Pasifika’s introduction, alongside the Fijian Drua, to Super Rugby Pacific next year, Mauger has been inundated with support. It’s that aspect he seeks to embrace.
“We’ve already succeeded by getting the licence, now we’ve got to bring it to life.
“I’ve had grown men in their 50s and 60s touch base and they’re in tears because it means so much to them and their families. You think of all our Pasifika players who haven’t had this opportunity. They’ve done what they’ve done and it’s benefitted the franchise or another nation. This time our players get to represent themselves. It really hit me when I was receiving all these messages.
“When we take the field at Mt Smart it’s going to be a momentous occasion.”