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'Lincoln's the main man': Moana Pasifika boss backs young star against Crusaders

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Brett Phibbs / www.photosport.nz

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Moana Pasifika head coach Aaron Mauger has full faith young first-five Lincoln McClutchie will live up to expectation in his Super Rugby Pacific debut against the Crusaders on Friday.

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McClutchie is one of 11 debutants who have been named by Mauger to play the competition juggernauts at Forsyth Barr Stadium, but few of the 22-year-old’s peers have been earmarked for great things like he has in years gone by.

A former schoolboy star at Hastings Boys’ High School, McClutchie has impressed at provincial level since his Hawke’s Bay debut four years ago, but has struggled to get a look in at Super Rugby level.

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With opportunities hard to come by in New Zealand, McClutchie took his talents abroad in 2020, plying his trade in the Top League for the NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes before returning to guide the Magpies to an NPC Championship title later that year.

Even then, the mercurial playmaker couldn’t attract the attention of the five New Zealand franchises, enabling Moana Pasifika to swoop in and secure his signature in what is a coup for the new expansion outfit.

Mauger himself said that McClutchie’s imminent Super Rugby Pacific debut this weekend is one that is “long overdue”, and he is excited to see what the exciting youngster can conjure up against the might of the Crusaders.

“He’s really keen. He’s the guy that runs our game. He’s the guy that pulls the strings,” Mauger said of McClutchie, who will start at No 10 against the serial title-winners in two days’ time, on Wednesday.

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“Keps [Moana Pasifika captain Sekope Kepu] gets to run out first, but Lincoln’s the main man, really. Keps will make the big decisions around where we go, but Lincs is the guy on the run. He’s really got his hand on the steering wheel.

“He’s done a great job. He’s really earned the trust of, certainly the coaching group, and then the players around him, and I know the boys back him.

“They’ll be right in behind him, and if we can give him a good ride and give him lots of good information as we go through the game around where we need to go, then we’ll see the best of him.

“He’s one of those guys that’s long overdue for a debut at this level, so looking forward to seeing him go.”

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McClutchie’s task of acclimatising to the rigours of Super Rugby Pacific will be made easier by the presence of halves partner Ereatara Enari, the former Crusaders halfback who worked in tandem with McClutchie at Hawke’s Bay last year.

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Mauger said the tight partnership the pair formed while at Magpies will be crucial for Moana Pasifika’s slim chances of success, as is the chemistry between McClutchie and second-five Danny Toala, a long-time friend and former Hastings Boys’ schoolmate.

“That relationship’s a really important one for us,” Mauger said.

“Obviously Lincoln at 10, Ere inside him and Danny Toala outside as well, so we feel that Hawke’s Bay combination that performed really well in the NPC last year gives us a little bit of cohesion in a really critical unit.

“Obviously we’ve been building combinations through our training weeks as well, so, to answer one of the previous questions, that’s something we’re really looking forward to as well, seeing how those combinations function under more pressure.

“There’s so much we’re going to get out of this game. There’s only one thing left to do, and that’s to test it out now.”

With 11 rookies on deck, Moana Pasifika may lean heavily on the intel Enari has of the Crusaders after having spent five seasons with the Christchurch-based side, where he won three Super Rugby titles and two Super Rugby Aotearoa crowns.

That, according to Mauger, is invaluable knowledge to have for a team as inexperienced as Moana Pasifika, making Enari a pivotal figure heading into this match.

“It’s been really beneficial having Ere in the Crusaders the last few years. [He has] given a bit of an insight into their mentality and what they’ll bring.”

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In saying that, Mauger is primarily focused on what his side can achieve and work on after their inexperience, pre-season rustiness and lack of cohesion was exposed in a 61-7 pre-season thumping at the hands of the Chiefs last month.

Since then, Moana Pasifika have had their first two matches of the year postponed due to a Covid outbreak, leaving Moana Pasifika with plenty of time for self-improvement ahead of their season-opener on Friday.

“We can only control so much, and really sort of focus on preparing our own game so we can go out there and give them a crack,” Mauger said.

“We can only control so much, and really sort of focus on preparing our own game so we can go out there and give them a crack.

“Probably what we learned in our first pre-season game against the Chiefs, I thought we were a bit reactive and we waited for the Chiefs to bring their game to us and see what they had.

“We just can’t do that against the Crusaders. It’s about getting on the front foot, or trying to get on the front foot, early and get some ascendency with some opportunities that we’ve identified. We’ve got to be a bit more proactive this week.”

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