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'He wasn't even in the 23': Backline merchants impressing for Moana Pasifika

By Sam Smith
Levi Aumua. (Photo by Brett Phibbs/Photosport)

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Moana Pasifika came within a hair’s breadth of scoring a second Super Rugby Pacific victory on Saturday night when they were narrowly defeated by the Waratahs at Mt Smart Stadium.

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Despite building a 17-0 lead to kick-start the match, Moana Pasifika weren’t able to deal the fell blow and the Waratahs fought their way into the match, eventually triumphing 26-20.

While Aaron Mauger was unsurprisingly disappointed with the end result, the Moana Pasifika head coach was impressed with the general quality of play his team delivered on the afternoon and two of the best performers in the match were backs Levi Aumua and Will Havili.

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Aumua – who has previously played for the Chiefs and Blues in the past – has been a key contributor for Moana Pasifika throughout the season and has been a reliable generator of go-forward ball for the new Super Rugby Pacific franchise.

In Saturday’s clash, Aumua finished the match 34 crucial metres to his name as well as three beaten defenders. Importantly, it was Aumua who crashed over from close range to keep the score ticking over early in the second quarter and take Moana Pasifika out to a 14-point lead.

 

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Mauger was pleased with Aumua’s efforts on the day but also credited the work of the centre’s teammates, who have become accustomed to setting up a platform from which Aumua can do the most damage.

“He’s obviously a strong guy,” Mauger said of Aumua following the game. “He’s a guy we look to to get us over the gain line, especially from our strikes and he’s doing a good job.

“But he’s well supported by the guys around him. There’s people creating those one-on-ones for him, putting him in the space. We’re a team and he’s benefitting from all the good work going on around him.”

While Aumua came into the season with a bit of a reputation thanks to his performances for Tasman in the NPC over the past few years, another Mako in the squad, Havili, hasn’t had quite the same level of experience to call upon this year.

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23-year-old Havili – the younger brother of All Black David – has been a relatively constant selection in the fullback jersey for Moana Pasifika this year, despite having mustered just five appearances for Tasman in two seasons with the province.

It was fair to say that Havili looked somewhat out of his depth at the beginning of the season and struggled with the pace and intensity of Super Rugby. Although he certainly wasn’t the only player to make unforced errors at inopportune times, he was perhaps the biggest culprit in the Pacific Islanders’ ranks.

But with time in the saddle, Havili has grown into one of Moana Pasifika’s most consistent performers. 50/22 kicks have become a crucial part of the young outside back’s repertoire while his short passing game has been useful for exploiting gaps in opposition defences.

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Having mustered six starts for Moana Pasifika before Saturday’s skirmish, Havili was originally given the week off and wasn’t set to feature against the Waratahs – but he ended up being one of the franchise’s best performers on the day.

“He’s been really impressive,” Mauger said of Havili’s performances to date. “Obviously he wasn’t down to start, he wasn’t even in the 23 for the game. He found out that he was going to be on the bench yesterday and then we had another withdrawal this morning so Willy stepped up and I thought he actually played his best game today, Willy.

“He’s striking the ball really well. We dominated the territory battle tonight and he was a big part of that. We’re really pleased.

“He’s a really engaged learner. He hasn’t played a lot of NPC rugby. He’s actually stepped up into this level and I thought he was really dominant, we’re really pleased for him.”

Despite fierce competition in the backs from the likes of Solomone Kata, Danny Toala and Lolagi Visinia, Aumu and Havili have likely entrenched themselves as some of the first names on Mauger’s teamsheet at the start of each week.

Moana Pasifika are next set to take on the Fijian Drua in Sydney next Saturday afternoon. At present, both sides are chasing a second victory.

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