Campbell Burnes previews Moana Pasifika’s first season as the long-held dream morphs into reality.
The late, great Peter Fatialofa issued an invitation to the All Blacks to come to Apia to play Manu Samoa.
It was just after the stirring historic inaugural Test between New Zealand and Samoa at Eden Park in 1993. New Zealand Rugby took some 22 years to accept the invitation. In 1996, rugby went pro and Super Rugby was born. Samoa, and Tonga and Fiji, were left out in the cold. Twenty-six years later, that wrong has been put right and finally a Pasifika team will grace the fields of Super Rugby.
Fats will be smiling, as always, from on high, while Sir Michael Jones and Sir Bryan ‘Beegee’ Williams will afford themselves a satisfied grin on February 18 when Moana Pasifika runs out onto Mt Smart Stadium to face the Blues, the established Auckland franchise. It was originally slated to be the Brumbies. Then Covid-19 intervened. Then events of late January conspired against packed crowds. Before then, I had asked head coach Aaron Mauger to close his eyes and imagine a packed Mt Smart on that night. He had already done so.
Alas, it will not be a barn-burning opener like when the Warriors entered the NRL in March, 1995. The cash-strapped Moana Pasifika will not be spending $1 million on a pre-match extravaganza. They have not shelled out $12,000 to fly out the two dogs of an ageing star (Andy Platt) from the UK.
Moana Pasifika has cut its cloth accordingly. In the main, its recruitment has come straight from the NPC: form players, marginalised players, hungry players full of potential. There are, too, no less than 16 internationals by my count, five of them who played for Tonga against the All Blacks at Mt Smart last July.
Alongside the long shadow cast by Covid, many of the Tonga players had family affected by the devastating volcano and tsunami in their Pacific island homeland last month. Performing for their family is a powerful motivating force, as is knowing your identity as a person and as a team. Historically there has been conflict between Tongans and Samoans, but rugby is a great healer and a galvanising game. There are other nations represented: the Cook Islands, Niue, Fiji and the Maori people. Now they are all paddling in the same vaka, va’a, waka, canoe.
Mauger was sold the vision and signed on for three years. He has Cooks blood, and had coached Leicester and the Highlanders while helping Manu Samoa. Last year he was at the head of Dunedin’s John McGlashan College First XV. Some change of pace, heading a start-up franchise that does not have a heap of resources in Covid Central without splitting too much of the Blues’ supporter base. Alongside him are Filo Tiatia (forwards), Dale MacLeod (defence) and Pauliasi Manu (set-piece). The latter looks as though he could still pack down, but Mauger hopes that won’t be necessary.
Moana Pasifika is using many of the Warriors’ facilities while the NRL team is based in Australia. Some of the Warriors staff are believed to be helping with ticketing. One wonders what will happen when the leaguies are back home on a regular basis.
That will not worry Mauger, who is about the here and now before the future. The squad fronted in decent shape in early January. The Auckland-based players, some 14 of them, ripped into their work in December, champing at the bit after no rugby in spring. Then it was about establishing connections and culture and sorting the rugby detail.
A close look at their squad would indicate a good top 15. Depth may be an issue if there are injuries. But there is no dearth of talent. This group can reach the quarter-finals. They may struggle for wins against the Kiwi franchises, but 3-4 victories over the Australian opposition, including the other newbies, the Fijian Drua, is achievable. Furthermore, they will be battle-hardened by late April when the Trans-Tasman component of Super Rugby Pacific kicks in.
Put it this way, Moana Pasifika is better placed for success than the Sunwolves who, despite a good fanbase, never had the full backing of the JRFU and struggled with their identity, often relying on journeyman Kiwis and South Africans to fill its roster. Result: only twice in five years did they rise off the foot of the Super Rugby table.
Mauger doesn’t want to sound wishy-washy, but equally he’s not going to nail his colours to the mast around what success will look like in terms of tangible results and outcome goals.
“We know we can’t control outcome, we know we are entering a tough competition. We know we’ve got no data. But the feeling is positive,” he says.
“I have no doubt this team is going to be successful. It’s not a matter of if, just when. That will come down to the quality of the programmes.
“There’ll be a couple of storms. That’s the nature of starting something new. We’ll take a couple of smacks on the nose, whether it be on-the-field results or organisational things off the field (no pressure then, for managers Ramsey Tomokino and Gina Cocker). We’ll make mistakes but when we pull it all together, there are some exciting ingredients to achieve something special over the next couple of years.”
Recruitment was not straightforward. Sekope Kepu had already come back from London Irish, but it is hard for a Pasifika player in the north to take a massive pay cut to come home for a new team. Visa issues scratched some players, though the Crusaders seemed to sign Pablo Matera without any problems. Christian Lealiifano had to come over from Australia in the vexed MIQ system and with an Achilles tendon concern in tow. But if this team makes a strong first impression and builds a lasting legacy, those Pasifika stars in the north coming off contract may just feel the pull of home.
“Ideally for us this becomes the team of choice for our top Pasifika players,” says Mauger.
Maybe Ardie Savea will sign for 2024 when his latest Hurricanes deal is up. He and Mauger have already spoken about the future. Wouldn’t that be a boon for this team?
Director of rugby Kevin Senio had gone on record in June 2021 that he was aiming to have 30 of the 38 contracted players having at least open eligibility for an island nation. He got 35, which was a fair effort. Lincoln McClutchie does not carry PI blood as such – he is Maori – while Lealiifano and Kepu are still technically tied to Australia but could switch allegiances to Samoa and Tonga, respectively, at the end of 2022.
There is punch, power, versatility and X-factor in the back three. Fullback Lolagi Visinia, never given full rein at the Hurricanes but a force for Hawke’s Bay, is back to his old stomping ground a more mature, rounded player and leader in this group. Another Magpie, Neria Fomai, is a hard runner either on the wing or in the midfield and impressed for Manu Samoa here last year. Mauger advises to watch out for another Magpie, Anzelo Tuitavuki, on the wing. He has size, pace and aerial ability. Timoci Tavatavanawai, the sole Fijian in the squad, took the NPC by storm with the Mako, scoring five tries and always dangerous.
Solomone Kata’s NPC with Auckland was curtailed but he is on familiar territory. He can play wing or centre and will add power to the midfield.
Levi Aumua will be all hustle and bustle at centre, while will this be the season that Danny Toala transfers his NPC form to the Super Rugby stage? Mauger likes him at second five but he will have to compete with Henry Taefu, the Manu Samoa rep and North Harbour man who has Super experience across the Ditch.
McClutchie is a candidate to play at No 10 after his fine NPC work, though Lealiifano is said to be on track to play early doors after his Achilles issues. Waiting in the wings is D’Angelo Leuila, unlucky not to be signed in the first instance, and Willy Havili, brother of David and used sparingly by the Mako in 2021.
“A guy like Willy Havili is, I think, really going to excel in a fulltime programme. This could be the start of his pathway to Rugby World Cup,” says Mauger, well aware that Toutai Kefu has his eye on the Nelson youngster.
The No 9 berth will be a shootout between Ere Enari and Jonathan Taumateine, neither of whom has been given extended opportunities previously in Super Rugby. Both are superfit and leading well.
As an aside, apologies to Enari and his family. In our last issue, we said he carried no Pasifika blood. In fact, he has Samoan blood on his father’s (Falefatu) side and lived in Samoa in his youth.
The forwards are an interesting lot, especially in the loosies. Opensider Alamanda Motuga is the sole survivor from the 2020 match against the Maori All Blacks. He should wear the No 7 jersey, depending on where Jack Lam, the Samoan veteran, fits in. Henry Stowers turned heads for Canterbury last season, while Niko Jones, son of Michael, was training as injury cover. If he ever fully shrugs off his injuries and shows us all his wares, then that will be worth watching. Lam (Achilles), Solomone Funaki (hand) and Penitoa Finau (hamstring) were all battling to be fully fit for February 18.
Lock could be an Achilles heel if any of the top second-rowers go down. We are looking at Samuel Slade and Mike McKee, two strong NPC performers for Counties Manukau and Southland, respectively.
“Mike has led Southland, is a great lineout tactician, drives standards, is a grafter and tough,” says Mauger. Slade has been showing up in pre-season and gets a chance some thought should have come some time ago.
Veikoso Poloniati of Manawatu is big, raw and athletic, while Alex McRobbie, of similar ilk, topped the 3km run and could slot in at six if need be. Don Lolo was playing club rugby in Otago when Tonga drafted him into its squad to face the All Blacks in 2021.
“Don is a tough, hard grafter. He was apprehensive coming into this environment because of his lack of experience, but you wouldn’t know it, he’s just attacking everything. The boys have warmed to him,” says Mauger.
The front-row is unlikely to be dominated too often in the scrums. Kepu will lead the way at tighthead, but Joe Apikotoa and Chris Apoua can do the damage too. Tau Koloamatangi is a former NZ Under 20s rep who did well for Otago last season. Count the lineout-driven tries from the robust hooking trio of Ray Niuia, Sam Moli and Luteru Tolai.
You will need to have watched a stack of NPC rugby in 2021 to fully appreciate the qualities of this squad, but it’s a much better 38 than one could have credited the franchise with back in August.
“The priority for us is to make sure we get our programme to a level where we are consistently competing with the best in a tough competition. That’s the inspiration and people will know we are serious,” says Mauger.
There will be cynics aplenty but many people want this team to succeed. It will be a game changer for Manu Samoa and Ikale Tahi and their passionate fans. It will take some time, but this is not just a second Auckland-based franchise. This is a national and regional team.
Best of luck and be strong. Malosi, Moana Pasifika.
Lolagi Visinia (Hawke’s Bay)
Neria Fomai (Hawke’s Bay)
Tomasi Alosio (Wellington)
Timoci Tavatavanawai (Tasman)
Tima Faingaanuku (Manawatu)
Anzelo Tuitavuki (Hawke’s Bay)
Solomone Kata (Auckland)
Levi Aumua (Tasman)
Danny Toala (Hawke’s Bay)
Henry Taefu (North Harbour)
Fine Inisi (North Harbour)
Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies)
William Havili (Tasman)
Lincoln McClutchie (Hawke’s Bay)
*D’Angelo Leuila (Waikato)
Ereatara Enari (Hawke’s Bay)
Jonathan Taumateine (Counties Manukau)
Manu Paea (Auckland)
Henry Stowers (Canterbury)
Jack Lam (Waikato)
Sione Tuipulotu (Auckland)
Solomone Funaki (Hawke’s Bay)
Penitoa Finau (Bay of Plenty)
Lotu Inisi (North Harbour)
Alamanda Motuga (Counties Manukau)
*Niko Jones (Auckland)
Samuel Slade (Counties Manukau)
Don Lolo (Otago)
Mike McKee (Southland)
Veikoso Poloniati (Manawatu)
Alex McRobbie (Counties Manukau)
Sekope Kepu (Counties Manukau)
Isi Tu’ungafasi (Tasman)
Joe Apikotoa (Hawke’s Bay)
Tau Koloamatangi (Otago)
Ezekiel Lindenmuth (Counties Manukau)
Chris Apoua (Southland)
Ray Niuia (Manawatu)
Sam Moli (Tasman)
Luteru Tolai (North Harbour)
Head coach: Aaron Mauger
Assistant coaches: Filo Tiatia, Dale MacLeod, Pauliasi Manu
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