Aaron Mauger, his phone still buzzing with congratulations two days after his side upset Super Rugby Pacific finalists the Brumbies in the final game of their inaugural season, is talking about a schedule that saw Moana Pasifika play eight games in four weeks: “They were probably the most challenges any professional rugby team has ever had in a season.”
It’s difficult to argue, although Crusaders supporters might point to their famous 2011 season when they played every match away from home due to the near constant earthquakes in the Canterbury region. And fell at the final hurdle against the Reds in Brisbane.
But the Crusaders had a squad stacked with internationals, a long record of success and years of experience among their players, coaches and wider staff. They had history.
As Mauger continues in an interview with 1News, “when you’re doing it for the first time, with a limited build-in to really establish your own structures… yeah it was tough, but we just focused on what was in front of us and sometimes we just had to pull our horizon forward to the day – just get through the day in a good space.”
Just get through the day. As newcomers to the competition alongside the Fijian Drua, Moana Pasifika were always going to face challenges this year, but Covid-enforced postponements and the rearranging of a schedule which pushed the players to their physical and mental limits amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
“We had four ‘storm weeks’, so eight of our games were played in four weeks," he says. "That was over half of our games, which is not ideal, but once those decisions are made you crack on as best you can. We looked at different opportunities for the squad and exposed more of our younger guys at this level.
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“A more experienced team can get through it,” Mauger adds.
“What we needed and still need is time on the grass coaching because a lot of our guys are new to this level. It took away the ability to coach the detail and build any intensity to stress it.
“When you’re in storm weeks you can’t train intensity and get those lessons on the field. That made it tough but once our players started coping with the intensity better and gave away fewer penalties, we were able to build more pressure."
That they survived that adversity, chalked up a golden point win over the Hurricanes at Mount Smart Stadium, and finished with a 32-22 victory over the Brumbies was a credit to their resolve. It proved they possess something special. As Mauger says, it bodes well for their future.
“It was an amazing way to finish the season. That performance against the Brumbies showed we’re not far away. We were competitive with a lot of those top teams through the year. It’s probably due to the journey we’re on – we haven’t quite had the experience in key moments in games against those best teams. It all clicked at the weekend.”
Moana Pasifika used 47 players this season. Significantly, their final player to make his debut was loose forward Lote Inisi, who was presented with his match jersey by big brother Fine, and happened to score a crucial try against the Brumbies.
It was always going to be an emotional game. Skipper Sekope Kepu was sent off after 11 minutes for making a high tackle but afterwards was presented with an award marking his 150th Super Rugby match. On a cool evening in Penrose, he danced on the pitch to celebrate.
Wing Timoci Tavatavanawai’s mother flew in from Fiji to watch her son play at this level for the first time.
“I had a good feeling we were going to play well,” Mauger says.
But feelings don’t necessarily translate into good performances - or results, for that matter.
Things looked promising in round three in early March (Moana’s first two games against the Blues and Chiefs were postponed due to Covid outbreaks in their camp) when they played the Crusaders in Dunedin.
They scored the first try of the match and perhaps surprised with their competitiveness - particularly their defence and breakdown work.
“Our boys were so keen and happy to play and there was a lot of emotion in that first game,” Mauger says. “That got us through to a position where I think we were 21-12 down with 12 minutes to go and we were in with a sniff against historically the best team in the competition.
'A dream made real and a privilege to be a part of'
“That gave us a lot of belief but we were just hanging in there. That showed the heart and spirit and I think that’s what attracted people to our game. I think we earned some new fans, too – not just Pasifika, people who enjoyed our style of play.
“We wanted to be different, we wanted to expose our superpowers – our boys have been blessed with some outstanding genes and skills and we wanted that flavour to come out and I think people could see that from the first game. That’s been a big part of our success – how we’ve connected people to what we’re about.”
Prop Kepu, 36, and fellow former Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano, 34, played significant leadership roles for the franchise this year and Mauger said they would return in 2023.
Retaining some of his younger players may be more of a challenge. “A lot of our guys stepped up and we’re aware they would probably command good money offshore but we’re trying to create an environment where these boys know they’re loved and cared for,” he says. “Hopefully that’s enough to make them want to stay a bit longer.”
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Creating a development system that fosters young Tongan, Samoan, Cook Islands and Fijian kids was also key, he says.
“We were set up on bare bones, really. I look at our high performance programme and it’s just a skeleton at the moment. We’ve got an opportunity through the off season to put some good flesh on those bones.
“The players will be 20% to 30% better for this experience this year and we will be too as an organisation.
“The possibilities for us are huge.”
Just getting on the field for that first match against the Crusaders was considered a triumph – a dream that inspired, and was inspired by, former All Black and Pasifika legends Sir Bryan Williams and Sir Michael Jones made real.
The Moana Pasifika voyage is well under way.
“I’m extremely proud,” says Mauger who is of Samoan, Tahitian and Cook Islands descent. “I’ve thought of my mum and nan a lot through this journey – it’s the same for all of our boys. We’ve got some pretty special giants that we’re standing on the shoulders of. It’s been awesome to learn about some of my own journey – a real privilege to be a part of.”