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'All we wanted to do was get to today': Storm week hits Moana Pasifika hard

By Tom Vinicombe
Sekope Kepu. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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The 30-point defeat at the hands of the Blues on Saturday evening won’t have necessarily left the Moana Pasifika coaches grinning from ear to ear but given the week that the team has endured, things certainly could have gone a lot worse at Eden Park.

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Moana Pasifika came roaring out of the gates, quickly banking two penalties to go 6-zip up against their Auckland rivals, only for the home team to strike back with two quick tries either side of the 20-minute mark. From that point on, it was mostly one-way traffic with the Blues eventually securing a 46-16 victory, even though they had to cope for a quarter of the match playing with one man down.

Still, given Moana Pasifika are playing in their inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific and faced a torrid start to their campaign with three games postponed in the opening four weeks of the competition, a 30-point defeat might not be quite as devastating as it looks on paper.

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The tough times haven’t exactly been easing off in recent weeks either, with the Pacific Islanders’ game against the Blues their third fixture in just 10 days. They now get six days ‘off’ before they have to do the same thing again, thanks to the rescheduling of the previously postponed matches.

To make matters worse, Moana Pasifika had to cope with a raft of players withdrawing from the squad during the week in order to isolate at home due to Covid, while head coach Aaron Mauger was also sidelined for the same reason.

 

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“Look, every week’s been a challenge for us since January 5th, to be fair,” assistant coach Dale McLeod said following Saturday night’s game. “But the good thing is, boy got opportunities tonight. We got a lot of learnings out of tonight. We’ll go away and work hard and we’ll front up again next week.

“It’s tough enough doing this at Mitre 10 level, playing storm weeks, but doing it at Super level with Covid thrown in, yeah definitely throws some challenges into the mix.”

From the matchday squad that was initially named on Thursday, two starting players had to drop out from the fixture – Michael Curry and Anzelo Tuitavuki – while there were further players that pulled out ahead of the team announcement who likely would have featured.

“I think there could’ve been at least six or seven,” McLeod said. “Every night, every morning, if the phone would go you’d be like, ‘Jee, I don’t really want to look at that’. And bang, sure enough, they’ve got Covid. It just kept coming.

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“All we wanted to do was get to today and obviously still have one coach on board. We lost our analyst, we lost a few people – but that’s not an excuse. I believe we still turned up here tonight and we showed that if we’d been a little more disciplined, if we’d owned our own roles a wee bit more, we created enough to really take that game to the wire.

“And credit to the Blues, they’ll punish you with their big forward pack. They’ll kick to the corners and they’ll maul and they’re pretty hard to stop once they get inside your territory and we all know if you give away penalties, first thing is [they] kick long and you’re straight under the pump again. We just weren’t good enough tonight around our accuracy.”

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When pushed on why Moana Pasifika continue to incur the wrath of the referees – primarily for issues at the set-piece and breakdown – McLeod acknowledged that the discipline still wasn’t good enough but that there had still been major improvements in the team’s performance since starting the season and there’s only so much that can be developed in a short timeframe.

“100 per cent, we’ve got to be better than that,” he said. “There are so many learnings going in, so what do we go away and work on? Every week, the things we work on, we get better.

“If you look at the Canes game, we kept our penalties down around 11 and we are in the fight and then we get a win in the end. It’s something that we talk about every week, it’s something we work on and tonight, I felt we just weren’t good enough around owning our own roles, executing in our system and at this level it’s so minor, you just get punished. We’ve gotta be better but we also understand that a lot of our boys are new to this level so the pressure [is tougher].

“I believe we’re getting better at playing and absorbing the pressure and tonight we left probably five tries out there – we created enough. So it’s not as if we’re not creating but probably our mental fortitude just to stay in the fight, trust, keep working hard. If we get that right and we create some scoreboard pressure then all of a sudden those penalties aren’t coming and we’re just not quite nailing that at the moment but I have no doubt we’re gonna get better and better.

“If you look back to where we were on January the 5th, January the 23rd, the things we talked about where we’d be, what have we achieved by now, we are making progress and the boys are getting better every week.

“The thing about storm weeks, players love them because you don’t have to do much training and it’s really hard to work on micros and install really good habits if you’re only on the grass for half an hour or on the grass and you’re getting late changes, boys coming in, boys going out. I don’t know how many players we’ve used in the last two or three weeks but there’s a few. So getting that continuity’s really important as well. And we haven’t got the luxury yet of having an established squad that have had a few years together and understand so it’s all new. We’ve gotta be better though, it’s just as simple as that.”

Saturday night’s defeat will give Moana Pasifika plenty of areas to work on, even if they’re areas that have already been identified by the coaching staff. With the winless Highlanders on the agenda next Friday, McLeod’s men will be eyeing a second NZ scalp and with head coach Mauger likely back on deck and a few full days of training between now and then, Moana Pasifika will certainly fare between against the southerners – although McLeod wasn’t making any excuses.

“We’ve prepared really well during the week for a short week, coming back off playing on Tuesday,” he said. “You always miss your head coach, I won’t deny that. But I don’t think we can blame that for why we didn’t get a result tonight. The group’s better than that. They are learning, they are growing. So we see this as a great learning for us and we get better every week and at the moment our weeks are about three days long so that makes a difference.”

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