Moana Pasifika's challenging introduction to Super Rugby
SPOTLIGHT: It would be fair to suggest that this Friday’s hit-out between Moana Pasifika and the Chiefs is one of the most anticipated pre-season matches in Super Rugby’s 26-year history.
First and foremost, the fixture presents fans a first taster of what Moana Pasifika will bring to the table this year as one of two new expansion sides in the competition.
While there won’t be a crowd in attendance due to New Zealand’s current Covid restrictions, the match will be broadcast, which will allow interested parties from around the country to tune in.
There’s also the added factor that the match is being used to promote fundraising efforts to help send support to Tonga following the eruption of Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai and the devastation caused by the resulting tsunami.
From a competition point of view, the match with the Chiefs will present many Moana Pasifika squad members with their first chance to play some competitive football for the first time in a long time after Northland, North Harbour, Auckland and Counties Manukau had to pull out of last year’s NPC early in the season due to the pandemic.
For new captain Sekope Kepu, Friday’s game will help Moana Pasifika get a gauge on where they’re sitting two weeks ahead of their opening match of Super Rugby Pacific with the Blues.
“We’ve had a lot of live hit-outs in the last couple of weeks, so the body is itching to get into some actual games,” said Kepu, who feature in Counties’ two matches last year. “It’s always hard, the first one or two pre-season games, but you’ve got to go through them to get into the competition.
“[I’m] not looking forward to it, but really looking forward to it at the same time.”
Veteran international prop Sekope Kepu has been named captain of New Zealand’s Moana Pasifika for their debut Super Rugby season.
In terms of the match itself and what the Chiefs will bring to the equation, Kepu is anticipating a high-paced game on a dry track at Mt Smart Stadium.
“I’m not expecting it to be slow. I’m expecting it to be lightning-fast,” he said.
“The Chiefs like to throw the ball around, they like the offloads, so it’s going to be a true test of what we’ve done over the last month. In saying that, you’ve got guys that have got speed and pace and feet out wide, so it’s up to us as forwards to provide that platform for them. It’s going to be a hell of a battle.”
And while the result this weekend will be quickly forgotten, the lessons learned by Moana Pasifika will be invaluable, given it will be the first time the team have got up against any opposition since they first came together on a full-time basis earlier this year.
“We’ve come together in the space of a month, not even that,” Kepu said.
“It’s February 2 now, and you’re having to fast-forward, fast-track, compared to other franchises where you’ve got a core group of guys there, but I’ve really enjoyed the way that guys are throwing in their ideas and taking on new things and taking charge of their individual roles and areas.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m sure we’ve got two quality hit-outs against the Chiefs, [who] are a great team, so it’s going to be a challenge, but something that we have to go through. I’m very excited to see the talent that we’ve got really come to fruition.”
Head coach Aaron Mauger is similarly looking forward to the upcoming battle.
“[We’re] really excited. It’s certainly been a real big shift in intensity in game week,” he said. “We’ve had a really good training week, felt the intensity lift on the field from the boys, so it’s been a good week so far. Just had a great run there [at training], two days to go, so ready to roll.”
Aaron Mauger, head coach of the newly formed Moana Pasifika team, believes his side may have a small advantage over their opposition when it comes to the impending shift to Queenstown.
The Chiefs, as a foundation side from back in 1996, are a team with over two-and-a-half decades worth of history and while there have been some changes in personnel, the squad remains largely intact from the one that managed a Super Rugby Aotearoa final appearance last season. The Chiefs already have a well-known history and well-known style – something Moana Pasifika will be sharing with fans for the first time on Friday.
“I just want to see the boys go out and express themselves,” Mauger said. “I want to see them go and play our style. We’ve talked about doing things different on and off the field, so just want them to have the courage to go out and play and put into practice what we’ve been working on the field.
“[We’re] probably just [looking to get] a measure [of where the team is at], really. You would’ve seen there [on the training field], we had a good hit out against each other.
“It’s not really until you start testing yourself against other teams that have been at this level for a long time [that you get an idea of where you’re at], so it’ll be good to get a bit of a measure of where we’re at in terms of our intensity, our speed, our execution of the things that we’ve put in place.
“We’ve done all that in three-and-a-half weeks, so really proud of the guys for what we’ve been able to build in that short amount of time.
“Now it’s just about going to test it against a good Chiefs side. We know they’ll be physical. They’re always physical, the Chiefs. They play with a lot of flair, so it’d be a good challenge first up. We’re going to give it our best crack.”
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass