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Picking a starting Moana Pasifika team for round one of Super Rugby Pacific

By Alex McLeod
Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.Photosport.nz

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The dawn of a new week means there is now less than a fortnight until the inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific kicks-off.

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Uncertainty still looms large over how the competition will play out with Omicron present on either side of the Tasman, but there is no shortage of anticipation and excitement as Super Rugby ushers in a new, Pacific-centric era.

As such, we have taken it upon ourselves to select what we believe will be the starting lineups for each of the 12 teams come round one of Super Rugby Pacific on February 18 and 19.

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While pre-season form and fitness may still yet play a part in who is picked come the beginning of the campaign, these selections are largely based on the availability and squad status of players at the time of writing.

Next up is Moana Pasifika, who, under the current schedule, will open their debut campaign against the Blues in Dunedin on February 18.

1. Ezekiel Lindenmuth

Photo credit: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

A dual U20 international for both New Zealand and Samoa, Ezekiel Lindenmuth stands as one of the more experienced props in Moana Pasifika’s front row stocks. Formerly of the Blues and Chiefs, the 24-year-old won a World U20 Championship with New Zealand in 2017 and an NPC with Auckland the following year. Given it is their maiden campaign and the vast inexperience evident throughout their squad, Moana Pasifika would be wise to lean on that experience as much as possible. They did just that in their recent pre-season clash against the Chiefs, a match in which Lindenmuth started in what was perhaps an indication of his value to the team.

2. Ray Niuia

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

One of several Manu Samoa internationals in the Moana Pasifika set-up, Ray Niuia looms as the hooker with the most to offer to the new expansion franchise. A former squad member at the Highlanders and Blues, the 30-year-old rake won last year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman with the latter side and has 13 test caps, four of which came at the 2019 World Cup, to his name. He also proved himself as one of Moana Pasifika’s more reliable lineout throwers against the Chiefs last Friday, which will be vital for his side given their troubles at the set-piece in that fixture.

3. Sekope Kepu

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
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Speaking of experience, no player at Moana Pasifika has been around as long as Sekope Kepu, the ex-Wallabies centurion who has been appointed captain of his new side in their inaugural Super Rugby campaign. That alone cements his place in the starting team, but the 36-year-old would have already nailed down the No 3 jersey by virtue of his 110 Wallabies tests and 141 appearances for the Waratahs, with whom he won the 2014 Super Rugby title. All of that makes him an irreplaceable figure in Moana Pasifika’s front row, so expect to see him starting at tighthead prop next Friday.

4. Mike McKee

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

A veteran of seven NPC campaigns with two different provinces, Southland lock Mike McKee looks primed to begin the campaign as one of Moana Pasifika’s two second rowers. The 28-year-old, who is of Cook Island descent, has also earned praise from head coach Aaron Mauger for his leadership in the early weeks of the season, and his starting role against the Chiefs last week may be indicative of his status among a fairly raw cohort of locks.

5. Sam Slade

(Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

Although he is primarily a blindside flanker, Sam Slade’s versatility as a lock option could see him lineup alongside McKee in Moana Pasifika’s engine room. Another member of the New Zealand U20 side that was crowned world champions in 2017, Slade has gone on to become a Manu Samoa international, having made his test debut last year. As such, he looms as an important figure in the Moana Pasifika forward pack, as reflected by his starting role against the Chiefs four days ago.

6. Jack Lam

Jack Lam sacrifice
(Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

With 40 tests for Samoa and two World Cup appearances under his belt, Jack Lam is one of the most pivotal members of the Moana Pasifika squad. The 34-year-old already has Super Rugby experience to his name, having played for the Hurricanes between 2011 and 2014, and has also plied his trade for the Bristol Bears in England and the Green Rockets in Japan. It’s no surprise, then, that Lam is part of Moana Pasifika’s leadership team, and it would be equally unsurprising to see him thrust into the starting lineup from day dot, even in spite of his absence from last week’s Chiefs clash.

7. Alamanda Motuga

(Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)
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One of many Moana Pasifika players who are yet to have played at Super Rugby level, few are as deserving to debut in the competition as Alamanda Motuga. The 27-year-old flanker has been superb at provincial level since his NPC debut for Counties Manukau in 2019, and was unfortunate not to have been picked up by any Super Rugby franchise in 2020 or 2021. Motuga has been just as impressive in his three tests for Samoa, and he will now have the chance to prove his class for Moana Pasifika over the coming weeks.

8. Henry Time-Stowers

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Another ex-New Zealand and Samoa U20 representative, Henry Time-Stowers has developed into a strong ball-running loose forward both in Super Rugby and at test level. Capped four times by Samoa, the 26-year-old made his name with the Western Force after leaving New Zealand for Perth in 2018 following two stints in the NPC with Bay of Plenty and Wellington. During his time in Western Australia, Time-Stowers emerged as a powerful prospect, firstly in Global Rapid Rugby and Australia’s NRC, and then in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. A return to New Zealand to link up with Canterbury last year showed that he has the traits required to succeed on this side of the ditch, something that Moana Pasifika will no doubt be hopeful for.

9. Ere Enari

(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Although he is a five-time title-winner in Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa by virtue of his status as a long-time member of the Crusaders, Ere Enari was barely given the chances he was after in Christchurch. Stuck behind Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond in the franchise’s pecking order, Enari was limited to just nine appearances across five seasons. However, the former New Zealand U20 representative blossomed into life in last year’s NPC as he starred for Hawke’s Bay, which should instil the Moana Pasifika faithful with confidence that they have a genuine talent with championship-winning experience on their hands.

10. Lincoln McClutchie

(Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Partnering Enari at the Magpies last year was exciting playmaker Lincoln McClutchie, who is in line to finally make his Super Rugby debut after being shunned by other franchises in recent years. Both the Hurricanes and Crusaders were eager to pick up the 22-year-old this year, but Moana Pasifika have lucked out by landing the first-five’s signature, giving them two top-class No 10 options in McClutchie and ex-Wallabies pivot Christian Lealiifano. It will be a straight shootout between those two for starting honours in round one, but McClutchie gets the nod here on the basis of his starting role against the Chiefs last week.

11. Timoci Tavatavanawai

(Photo by Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

He didn’t feature against the Chiefs, but, if he is available for selection next week, it would be hard to overlook Fijian flyer Timoci Tavatavanawai as one of Moana Pasifika’s two starting wings. Involved with both the Crusaders and Highlanders last year, the 23-year-old burst onto the scene in his maiden NPC campaign with Tasman as he became a human highlights reel with his quick feet and explosiveness on either side of the ball. That makes Tavatavanawai an enticing prospect for Moana Pasifika, so one hopes that he is free to play over the coming weeks.

12. Danny Toala

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Signed by the Hurricanes as a highly-touted teenager in 2019, Danny Toala barely got a glimpse of game time in the Kiwi capital, playing just four times over the course of three seasons. That is hardly a reflection of his talent and potential, which made him a New Zealand U20 representative three years ago and has seen him flourish for Hawke’s Bay in the NPC. Capable of playing at fullback as well as second-five, Toala has made the No 12 jersey his own in recent times, including against the Chiefs last week.

13. Levi Aumua

(Photo by Evan Barnes/Getty Images)

Having spoken exclusively to RugbyPass about his desire to make a good fist of Super Rugby this year following a few challenging seasons with the Blues and Chiefs, don’t be surprised to see Levi Aumua star for Moana Pasifika in 2022. A very strongly-built midfielder who is eligible to play for both Samoa and Fiji, the 27-year-old has shown what he is capable of with ball in hand while playing for Tasman, but hasn’t yet fulfilled his potential at Super Rugby level. Expect that to change over the coming months, especially given that he may be the preferred centre option ahead of ex-NRL star Solomone Kata – who left last week’s match with an apparent ankle injury – on the basis of his start against the Chiefs.

14. Neria Foma’i

Photo credit: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Considering the relative experience and pedigree of Moana Pasifika’s outside back contingent, competition for places on the wings is expected to be high. However, on the back of his effort against the Chiefs last week, Neria Foma’i could be in contention to start come round one. The two-test Samoan international was a dangerous attacking threat at Mt Smart Stadium and was the focal point of one electric run during the first of the three 30-minute periods. Such hot feet could be of significant value to Moana Pasifika, especially if attacking opportunities are hard to come by, as they were against the Chiefs.

15. Lolagi Visinia

Credit: © Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Another player who missed Moana Pasifika’s match against the Chiefs, hopes will be high that Lolagi Visinia will be available to play next week after his standout campaign for Hawke’s Bay last year. The ex-Blues, Hurricanes, Grenoble and Green Rockets outside back flourished for the Magpies as he finally began to find the groove that eluded him during his early playing in New Zealand. Now, at the age of 29, Visinia will be aiming to continue to put his best foot forward for Moana Pasifika.

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