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How Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika compare to past expansion teams

By Tom Vinicombe
Ratu Rotuisolia and Agustin Creevy. (Photos by Getty Images)

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Super Rugby Pacific’s two new expansion sides have faced very different introductions to the competition in 2022.

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Moana Pasifika are set to play just their second game of the season on Saturday when they will come up against a Chiefs side flying high following their first win in Christchurch in six years. During the pre-season, a third-string Chiefs side bested the Pacific Island composite team 61-7 and with precious little rugby under their belt so far this year, a similar scoreline wouldn’t surprise at Mt Smart Stadium this weekend.

Moana Pasifika did play significantly better against the Crusaders in their only competition match to date, managing to keep a team of backup players to ‘just’ 33 points but this Saturday’s encounter will be another challenge altogether, with the Chiefs’ benchwarmers significantly more experienced at provincial level than their Crusaders counterparts, even if they’re also somewhat lacking in Super Rugby runs.

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What’s it like being the only non-Fijian player in the Fijian Drua?
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What’s it like being the only non-Fijian player in the Fijian Drua?

The bigger roadblock for Moana Pasifika, however, has been their string of postponed matches, which means that even after rearranging this weekend’s schedule to ensure the new team get some minutes under their belt, they still have to play two further catch-up matches during the season. The team most in need of game time is the one that has been robbed of it.

Across the ditch, Fijian Drua have been winning over plenty of fans with their expansive (and admittedly sometimes frustrating) play and never-say-die attitude. After getting off to a rocky start against the Waratahs and Brumbies, the Drua scored their first-ever win in just their third official match, besting the Rebels on the Sunshine Coast. While the Reds then built a big lead in the Drua’s latest match, up 28-9 heading into the final quarter, the Fijians came flying back into the contest late in the piece and ultimately lost by just a solitary try to last year’s Super Rugby AU champions.

Despite the relatively straightforward victories for the Waratahs and Brumbies to kick off the campaign, it’s safe to say that even at this early stage of the season, few teams will see the Drua as easy beats now that they’ve found their feet.

The Drua’s successes have made for excellent viewing for neutral fans and although they should be applauded for their accolades – earning a debut win just three games into their Super Rugby inauguration – it’s worth noting that they’ve not been the quickest expansion team out of the blocks in Super Rugby’s 27-year history.

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The first ‘new’ side to join Super Rugby was technically the Cheetahs, who replaced the Stormers (then known as Western Province) in the 1997 iteration of the tournament. Like the Drua, it took the Cheetahs three matches to earn their first victory, beating the Reds 35-24 in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs finished the season in seventh place with five wins to their name then merged with the Lions the following season to form the Cats.

In 2006, the Cheetahs returned to the competition following expansion to 14 sides and scored a victory in just their second match, defeating the Sharks by a single point in Durban to kickstart an incredibly successful ‘re-debut’ campaign where they managed four wins from their opening six fixtures. A string of losses followed, however, and the Cheetahs finished the year in 10th place.

The Western Force also joined Super Rugby in 2006 and it wasn’t until their last fixture of the year – against the Cheetahs in Kimberely – that they were able to get their first victory. Their prior two games, however, against the Crusaders and Lions, had resulted in draws. Their first win over a non-expansion side didn’t come until the second round of the next year’s tournament when they beat the Stormers in Cape Town and the Bulls in Pretoria on back to back weekends.

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2013 saw the competition expand to 15 teams with the Melbourne Rebels becoming the fifth Australian side in Super Rugby and the Kings replacing the Lions. The Kings earned instant success, managing a 22-10 win over the Force in their first-ever fixture. The season as a whole left a lot to be desired, however, with only two subsequent wins coming against the Rebels and an out of sorts Highlanders side. The Kings ultimately finished bottom of the ladder and lost their place to the Lions for the following year.

The Rebels were also relatively quick out of the blocks, beating the Brumbies 25-24 in Melbourn in just their second game of the year and managing two further victories over the Hurricanes and Force to finish 12th.

In 2016, Super Rugby went through its biggest overhaul (until this year’s major contraction) thanks to the introduction of Japan’s Sunwolves and Argentina’s Jaguares, while the Kings also made a return.

The Jaguares – comprised of almost the entire Argentina test side – dispatched the Cheetahs in their 34-33 in their opening game and also got the better of the Kings, Bulls and Lions throughout the year to finish 13th on the composite 18-team ladder. The Sunwolves, on the other hand, struggled with a side built from a combination of Brave Blossoms representatives and various expats from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Their first win didn’t come until their eighth game of the season, against the Jaguares, while they had to wait until halfway through 2017 for their first victory over a non-expansion side when they bested the Bulls 21-20 in Tokyo.

While the Jaguares quickly went on to find great success, contesting the 2019 Super Rugby final with the Crusaders, the likes of the Force, Rebels, Cheetahs, King and Sunwolves have never gone on to reach great heights, with the latter three now effectively disbanded altogether.

The challenge for the Drua will be back to back up their early performances and go on to become something other than a Super Rugby also-ran. Moana Pasifika, meanwhile, are yet to really get their season underway. With the Pacific Islands heritage backing the two teams, they should undoubtedly be able to bring together the talent over time to challenge their Super Rugby rivals in the future, even if their recruitment and introductions in 2022 were seriously disrupted thanks to Covid.

The Drua will be aspirationally eyeing up at least two victories from their coming three matches against the Force, Rebels and Waratahs and will fancy themselves as an outside chance of making the Super Rugby Pacific quarter-finals later in the year. Moana Pasifika, meanwhile, may fancy their chances against an underperforming Highlanders team when they do eventually meet but will likely have to wait until the trans-Tasman games kick off in late April for a first real shot at victory.

History has shown, however, that expansion sides can pull the wool over their opposition if they’re not treated with respect.

Number of matches required to get a win for Super Rugby expansion sides:

1 – Kings (vs Western Force, 23 February 2016)
1 – Jaguares (vs Cheetahs, 26 February 2016)
2 – Cheetahs [second entry] (vs Sharks, 18 February 2006)
2 – Rebels (vs Brumbies, 25 February 2011)
3 – Cheetahs [first entry] (vs Reds, 15 March 1997)
3 – Fijian Drua (vs Rebels, 4 March 2022)
8 – Sunwolves* (vs Jaguares, 23 April 2016)
12 – Western Force* (vs Cheetahs, 6 May 2006)
15 – Western Force** (vs Stormers, 9 February 2007)
21 – Sunwolves** (vs Bulls, 8 April 2017)
N/A – Moana Pasifika

* against an expansion side
** against a non-expansion side

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