Feb 8, 2022 Sport
Success. It comes in different forms in professional sport, but for Moana Pasifika, just existing is a heroic success in itself. The new team that shouldn’t be so new are playing catch-up with the other big boys of Super Rugby, having to win over a well-meaning but slightly sceptical Auckland before a ball has even been kicked.
Moana Pasifika are like a new kid at school who is turning up halfway through the year, when everyone else has been hanging out, making friends and getting ahead without them. Everyone wants the new kid to succeed. Well, almost everyone. They want to see the representation of the Pacific Islands pull back the balance of power a bit. But just how Moana Pasifika are going to do it in an extremely competitive environment with seemingly limited resources remains a mystery, especially considering they had to start the most important part of the process a few months later than they should have.
Back in April, there was a big media day at NZ Rugby’s Auckland office in the Saatchi & Saatchi building on The Strand in Parnell. The bosses had finally given the green light to Moana Pasifika, prompting Sir Bryan Williams to throw his arms in the air like a proud father, and tears to roll down the cheeks of Sir Michael Jones as he made a passionate speech about how much this meant to the Pasifika rugby community. The cameras rolled and the questions flowed, but behind the two Samoan All Black icons was NZR chief Mark Robinson, looking on with a clenched grin. When it came his turn to talk, he had to gently dull the mood a bit — this wasn’t a full licence to compete, only a probationary one. For all the hoopla of that day, it turned out it didn’t really mean much. The actual go-ahead date wouldn’t come for another three months. The new boys weren’t quite allowed in the door just yet.
Still, progress was made in preparation for the big day. Moana Pasifika fittingly have made their home in Rarotonga, more commonly known as Mt Smart Stadium. The usual tenants have vacated the park and its facilities for the new occupants to have all to themselves; the Vodafone New Zealand Warriors have, like many Aucklanders before them, up and left Auckland for sunny Queensland. When they will be back is one thing, just how they will reconnect with fans who won’t have seen them for almost three years is another. Maybe, just maybe, some of the fans will be following Moana Pasifika instead.
Mt Smart was no surprise. Equally unsurprising was the reaction from people who somehow think it’s in South Auckland. It’s not; it’s in Penrose, perched in the crater of Rarotonga, the quarried-out volcano surrounded by industrial estates and pie stops. To get there from the Penrose train station or any nearby parking lot is to walk past the bases of hydraulic manufacturers, plumbing suppliers and auto-wrecking yards. It’s probably the least appealing surroundings for a stadium in the country, but up close, you have to give Mt Smart its dues. Surrounded by trees, once you walk in it is a beautiful football field flanked by steep stands that offer great views. It’ll be quite a sight on game day in February, which is when Moana Pasifika will run out in front of their new fans. It seats 25,000 when it’s full; around half that number is what the team will be aiming to bring in for each match.
In a perfect world, though, Moana Pasifika would be based in the stadiums of Apia or Nuku’alofa, but the unfortunate reality of having to be tucked away in the greyest part of Auckland was always more likely. Most of what else has been revealed was foreshadowed, too. They’d named a coach, Aaron Mauger, who was always going to be on the cards after he found himself out of a job with the Highlanders last year. Their playing roster is a work in progress, too, because the aforementioned lag with getting the full go-ahead in the competition meant that the big dogs could lock up all their star players for the upcoming season. One by one, the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders announced signings for 2022, while we all impatiently waited for something, anything, out of a Moana Pasifika team that hadn’t even started up a Twitter account.
Then, in September, the names started to roll out. International experience, form NPC players and a bit of hype. Up the road at Eden Park, this probably hasn’t raised too many smiles. There is a pretty obvious reason the Blues aren’t so happy about the new kids and are probably looking forward to bullying them as soon as they walk through the gate. This is the Blues’ turf, they earned it through four titles including one last year, and sure as hell they don’t want to see their fans switch allegiance. They already have the highest number of Pasifika players in Super Rugby as it is, so very much feel they carved out their identity as the Auckland team.
Because they feel this way, it has the makings of a grand scrap when the two sides finally meet next year. The new kids have to put in a good showing against the school tough guys if they want to earn the respect of their peers.
Then again, there is going to be a story hanging over Moana Pasifika all next year that’s more than what happens on the field. They are a feeder team for Tonga and Samoa but have already started signing promising players eligible for New Zealand, due to the talent available being stretched a bit thin as it is. Lincoln McClutchie, from Hawke’s Bay, has been arguably one of the biggest names added so far due to his outstanding NPC form, but his path next year will be towards performing a haka, not a sipi or siva tau. There will be a lot of talk about just who this team are really benefiting; after all, their launch ceremony was at NZ Rugby headquarters.
But there is another story, the one about how the new boys are doing this for their families. They are prepared to take the knocks along the way so their brothers and sisters can one day follow in their footsteps to the big time, develop their talent and be a positive part of their community’s future. The men and women both playing and involved in rugby in Auckland are massively, overwhelmingly Pasifika. This is their path, if they choose to follow it.
It will be a tough first day at school for Moana Pasifika as the other sides eye them up and mark them down as an easy win. The Crusaders already do that with most of the other teams anyway. Auckland’s lockdown situation means that the team’s pre-season training may well have been disrupted as well. They’re going to take a while to learn the ropes and earn the respect, but give them time and we may be seeing something special erupt from Rarotonga.