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Moana Pasifika name 'strongest team available' for Highlanders clash

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Moana Pasifika head coach Aaron Mauger has named “the strongest team available” for his side’s Super Rugby Pacific clash against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.

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The bottom-of-the-table encounter comes after Moana Pasifika were forced to weather yet another Covid storm as they played back-to-back matches against the Blues in the space of four days last week.

During that time, the new expansion franchise were without numerous players, as well as Mauger and assistant coach Filo Tiatia, due to Covid protocols, which led to consecutive defeats against their cross-town rivals.

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However, Mauger is eager to bounce back from those losses by notching a win against the only winless team in the competition.

“They’ve been playing some really good rugby,” Mauger said of the Highlanders, the team he coached for three seasons before being released by the franchise in 2020, on Wednesday.

“I thought their performance against the Crusaders was really strong. Their set piece has been firing all year. They’ve been really strong in that area, put a lot of pressure on opposition ball.

“The Highlanders, they’re a good team. They played tough, they played tight, and we’re seeing all those things. Just things haven’t quite gone their way to get the results, and they’ll be hungry Friday night. We’re aware of that, but we’re hungry as well.”

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In order to satisfy his side’s hunger, Mauger has made seven changes to the starting Moana Pasifika lineup that were beaten 46-16 by the Blues at Eden Park last Saturday.

First-choice midfielders Danny Toala and Levi Aumua are reinstated into the backline at the expense of Solomone Kata and Nigel Ah Wong, while Tomasi Alosio’s concussion protocols have allowed Tima Fainga’anuku to start on the right wing.

In the pack, ex-Blues hooker Luteru Tolai replaces Tongan international Sam Moli at No 2, while lock Sam Slade fills in for Alex McRobbie in the second row.

A rejig in the loose forwards sees ‘Ikale Tahi flanker Solomone Funaki move from openside to blindside in place of international teammate Sione Tu’ipulotu, with Manu Samoa representative Alamanda Motuga coming into the No 7 jersey.

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The only other change in the starting team comes at No 8, where Samoan international Henry Time-Stowers is replaced by Penitoa Finau.

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Moli and Tu’ipulotu have dropped to the bench, where they are two of three new faces alongside Manu Samoa halfback Jonathan Taumateine, who returns to the match day side in place of Dwayne Polataivao.

Mauger believes the side he has picked to face the Highlanders is the best possible team he could have rolled out against the Dunedin-based franchise as they look for their second-ever win after stunning the Hurricanes a fortnight ago.

“We’ve picked the best team, the strongest team, available to us this week,” Mauger said.

“We believe that we can go and compete with any team in this competition when we get it right. What we are learning is we haven’t quite got it right for long enough periods so far.

“Even the Hurricanes game, which was just an outstanding occasion for us, it could have gone either way, so for us to be serious about getting more outcomes, it’s about being more consistent throughout the 80 minutes.

“If we were to look at our last performance, it’s good that our boys were disappointed. They were gutted with the performance because we didn’t offer our best against the Blues.

“We weren’t patient enough, we weren’t disciplined enough around executing our game – the little things, the basics within our game – for longer periods, but we know that when we do that for long periods, we can put anybody under pressure and ultimately come away with the outcome.

“That’s the challenge and that’s been a big focus for this week, is putting it in for 80 minutes.”

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Mauger wouldn’t be drawn into commenting on whether he feels this weekend’s match is something of a grudge match given his unceremonious exit from the Highlanders following an underwhelming campaign two years ago.

Instead, the former All Blacks five-eighth said he was looking forward to returning to his Dunedin-based family after having moved to Auckland to take up his role with Moana Pasifika in January.

“Excited, mate,” Mauger said of the prospect of heading down south on Thursday.

“My family’s there, so get to spend a couple of nights in my bed. Haven’t slept in that bed since January 2, when I left Dunedin, so certainly looking forward to that and waking up having breakfast with my kids and just being a dad at home for a couple of days, obviously between rugby duties.

“I’m excited. I’ll be coming in hot from the game on Friday night.”

Kick-off for Friday’s clash between Moana Pasifika and the Highlanders is scheduled for 7:05pm.

Moana Pasifika team to face Highlanders

1. Ezekiel Lindenmuth
2. Luteru Tolai
3. Sekope Kepu (c)
4. Veikoso Poloniati
5. Sam Slade
6. Solomone Funaki
7. Alamanda Motuga
8. Penitoa Finau
9. Ereatara Enari
10. Christian Leali’ifano
11. Timoci Tavatavanawai
12. Danny Toala
13. Levi Aumua
14. Tima Fainga’anuku
15. William Havili

Reserves

16. Sam Moli
17. Abraham Pole
18. Chris Apoua
19. Mahonri Ngakuru
20. Sione Tu’ipulotu
21. Jonathan Taumateine
22. Lincoln McClutchie
23. Fine Inisi

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