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Full extent of Moana Pasifika's Covid outbreak revealed as doubts linger over Chiefs clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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Moana Pasifika have until Wednesday to prove they have a squad fit and healthy enough to face the Chiefs on Sunday after a Covid outbreak within their squad forced the postponement of their season-opener against the Blues last weekend.

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The new expansion franchise is still waiting to make its Super Rugby Pacific debut after their first-up clash against the Blues, initially scheduled to be played on Friday, was pushed back indefinitely when positive Covid cases were detected in the squad.

Moana Pasifika’s playing group and management staff were subsequently forced into a 10-day isolation period at their Queenstown hotel on February 9 as seven players were reported to have contracted the virus.

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However, after the first cohort of players and management were released from isolation on Sunday, Moana Pasifika head coach Aaron Mauger revealed that Covid had spread throughout the squad, infecting far more than just seven players.

As such, Moana Pasifika are still awaiting the return of 15 players and some management staff who are still isolating in their hotel rooms.

“The number was higher than seven. I’m not at liberty to give you the exact number, but it was a lot higher than seven, and that’s been one of our challenges, really,” Mauger told reporters on Monday.

Under New Zealand Rugby’s [NZR’s] Covid return-to-play protocols, Moana Pasifika are now left with only two days to prove themselves as ready enough to play the Chiefs this weekend.

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That match, which will now be held in Queenstown on Sunday evening instead of Dunedin on Saturday night to give Mauger’s side as much preparation time as possible, may yet be a bridge too far for Moana Pasifika to play in.

To prove their readiness for the fixture, Moana Pasifika players must avoid lower limb injuries while proving their ability to withstand force upon their return to training this week.

That could cause some headaches for Mauger, who outlined the difficulties he encountered around his keeping his players fit throughout their isolation period, during which time they weren’t allowed to leave their hotel rooms at all.

“Wednesday is the deadline. I think we’ll have a better indication in the next 24 hours, so we’ve had a couple of really light sessions out on the field. You can tell it’s taken its toll, being cooped up inside for 11 days,” Mauger said.

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“Even though our guys were doing some high-intensity workouts, there’s nothing like replicating some scrum loads and high-intensity running, which we haven’t done any of in these first few days, based on the guidelines, so it’s a real graduated approach to our return.

“We’ll just follow that so we can keep everybody safe and in the right space.”

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Chief among the player wellbeing concerns is the readiness of Moana Pasifika’s front rowers, who have been deprived of the requisite scrum training needed at Super Rugby level for almost two weeks now.

Mauger said it will be challenging to provide his props and hookers with the conditioning required for them to withstand the pressure generated by scrums ahead of this weekend’s fixture.

“We got some light collision conditioning in today. We essentially just got off the grass, and the boys seemed to tolerate that pretty well, but there’s nothing like the full scrum load through the necks and the pressure through the spine and all those things, which is something they haven’t had for a couple of weeks.

“That will be a challenge, getting to the level of conditioning to make it safe to play this week. We’ll make those decisions once we’ve been through a bit more loading through the next couple of days.”

The ex-All Blacks midfielder added that he would be happy to revert to uncontested scrums in order for the match to go ahead as planned, while the prospect of bringing in replacement players from other squads has also been floated.

Mauger said, though, he would only be comfortable with drafting no more three-to-four players from outside the Moana Pasifika set-up.

Any more than that, he said, would be “a little bit shambolic” and “a stretch too far” for his side.

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“We’ll do anything we can to get back out on the field. It has been talked about, the replacement of players from other teams as well. We could probably do that with three or four max. Anything past that, then it’s not really a Moana Pasifika team.

“When it starts to get to those levels, then we’d probably take that off the table and do what’s right for Moana Pasifika, and also our players as well.”

Regardless of whether this weekend’s match goes ahead as planned, Mauger is remaining upbeat about how his side has dealt with the trials and tribulations forced upon them by their Covid outbreak.

“It’s certainly not the way we anticipated spending our time down in Queenstown. We were obviously pretty excited to keep preparing for that first game, which was supposed to be last weekend against the Blues. It was a bit of a challenge,” he said.

“We had some challenges, but really proud of our team, and everybody, for the way we’ve come through it. We actually took a lot of positives with how we came through the challenges.

“I think a big part of that was learning to let go of a lot of things we weren’t able to have in front of us at the time, and sometimes it was just about bringing our horizon forward to the day.

“How do we get through today? How do we put the right support around our players and staff to maximise the day? We’re trying not to look too far ahead, so I think we’ve come through it okay, but it has been challenging.”

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