Overlooked Magpies flourish in 'outstanding' first opportunity for Moana Pasifika
There was a distinct Hawke’s Bay flavour to the Moana Pasifika squad when it was unveiled piece by piece last year.
Despite being one of the best-performing sides in the NPC over the past decade, the top Magpies players haven’t always been justly rewarded at Super Rugby level.
Moana Pasifika, in their quest to put together a competitive team for their inaugural appearance in Super Rugby, sought to rectify that, bringing in eight of Hawke’s Bay’s most impressive players for their 2022 campaign.
While the likes of Joe Apikotoa, Ereatara Enari, Danny Toala and Lolagi Visnia all had a taste of Super Rugby in seasons gone by, their on-field appearances were few and few between. For others, such as Neria Foma’i, Solomone Funaki, Lincoln McClutchie and Anzelo Tuitavuki, Super Rugby contracts had never fallen their way.
Six of the above players featured in Moana Pasifika’s debut appearance against the Crusaders on Friday night (Visinia and Tuitavuki will make their debuts in games to come) and despite eventually falling to a 33-12 defeat, all six enhanced their reputations after an industrious 80 minutes that was characterised by a never-say-die attitude from the competition newbies.
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McClutchie and Toala, who formed such a strong combination throughout Hawke’s Bay’s 2021 season, were two of the best on the park and Moana Pasifika head coach Aaron Mauger had plenty of praise for his young five-eighths combination following the match.
“Danny and Lincoln were outstanding tonight,” Mauger said. “I thought Ere [Enari] served the guys really well too, there was some good service with the ball that we did have. Obviously we had to defend for long parts but I think both Danny and Lincoln showed what they’re capable of, it was good to step up to this level for the first time and really dominate as a combination.”
The pair first started playing together during their high school days for a dominant Hasting Boys’ College side that also boasted such talents as Folau Fakatava, Kini Naholo and Devan Flanders and both made their first appearances for Hawke’s Bay in 2018.
Toala made the step up to Super Rugby level the following season with the Hurricanes but managed just four appearances – including one solitary start – in his three years with the club. In his first start for Moana Pasifika, Toala finished the match with nine carries, three beaten defenders, 40 metres gained and 14 tackles to his name. While his full-time involvement in rugby for the past three seasons undoubtedly paved the way for his impressive performance against the Crusaders, Mauger also attributed Toala’s successful debut to his professional attitude.
“I think it’s probably a combination of both things,” Mauger said. “Danny knew the level, he knew what to expect, so he does have that experience which served him well. But been really impressed with Danny right from the start of our pre-season. He’s a guy that’s really put his hand up.
“He’s smart, he understands the game. He’s worked really hard with his combinations with the guys around him, both Levi [Aumua] and Lincoln, and that combination has worked well at training. So really happy. I thought defensively he was really good tonight as well. I thought he was physical; it’s a part of his game that he’s been working on, along with Henry Taefu, his No 12 buddy. So really proud of those guys getting off to a good start tonight.”
McClutchie, meanwhile, has found it difficult to crack a full-time contract with a Super Rugby side in the past and after missing out for 2020, he spent the season as Marty Banks’ understudy at the Red Hurricanes in Japan. 2022 now presents the young pivot with an opportunity to prove that he’s more than capable of performing at this level of the game and his attacking form, in particular, was on full display in Friday night’s loss with the No 10 making a scything break to set up Moana Pasifika’s first-ever try.
With Moana Pasifika’s season only really getting underway against the Crusaders after Covid delayed their entry to the competition, the likes of McClutchie and Toala will have plenty of time to grow into their jerseys – and maybe prove to a few teams that they were misguided to let the many talents of Hawke’s Bay slip through their fingers.
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