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'Really tough': How Moana Pasifika plan to tackle three games in eight days

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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Moana Pasifika remain optimistic about their chances over the coming weeks in spite of a disrupted campaign that has left them with a challenging schedule which features three matches over eight days.

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Following the postponement of their two season-openers against the Blues and Chiefs, New Zealand Rugby confirmed last week that Moana Pasifika will play those games as mid-week fixtures within the next month.

As such, the Super Rugby Pacific expansion franchise will play the Blues on March 29, which falls on a Tuesday, at Mt Smart Stadium, and then the Chiefs on April 12, which also falls on a Tuesday, in Hamilton.

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Both those fixtures mean Moana Pasifika will play twice in round seven and round nine, as they face the Blues at Eden Park on April 2, four days after their first encounter, and then the Chiefs at home on April 16, four days after their mid-week clash.

Moana Pasifika’s double clash against the Blues will be particularly challenging given their Tuesday match will come just four days after they face the Hurricanes next Friday.

It means they will play the Hurricanes once and the Blues twice all within the space of eight days, before taking a bye week in round eight and then facing the Chiefs in back-to-back matches four days apart from each other in round nine.

Such fixture congestion – which could worsen after last weekend’s match against the Hurricanes in Wellington was postponed due to Covid, and this Friday’s match against the Highlanders is in doubt for the same reason – will force Moana Pasifika to dig deep into their playing stocks.

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That’s a tough prospect for any team, but even more so for Moana Pasifika, whose roster is half-filled by players who, until this season, had never played as full-time professionals.

The squad’s vast inexperience was reflected when they named 11 Super Rugby debutants in their season-opener against the Crusaders a fortnight ago, which has been their only regular season match to date.

That doesn’t worry veteran playmaker Christian Leali’ifano, though, as and the ex-Wallabies five-eighth told media on Monday that, after missing three of their first four matches of the year, Moana Pasifika are brimming with excitement to return to action.

“It’s going to be definitely challenging and a little bit difficult at times, but exciting opportunity for us, as well, to share the load with our whole squad,” Leali’ifano said of his side’s upcoming mid-week fixtures.

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“We’ve got some really talented players that haven’t had much game time. We’ve only had 23 guys play. To be able to share the load there and get exposure at Super Rugby level is going to be important for our whole squad.

“Really excited for the opportunities there to be able to back up. It’s going to be really tough, as you say, but hopefully the coaches and everyone’s got a plan for trying to share the load there and get us ready to play each game.”

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According to defence coach Dale McLeod, there is a plan in place to negate the rigours that come with the rapid sequence of fixtures that Moana Pasifika are set to come across.

That plan is to take things one game at a time, as McLeod outlined that, of all the things his side have learned during their Covid-disrupted season, everything could change at any given time.

“All teams, if they suffer injuries, that can really affect you, but we had a bit of a discussion the other day, the way the world is, let’s just deal with what’s in front of us,” he said.

“Set our horizon – our horizon is our next game – play that, we’ll get up, we’ll get through that, and then we’ll deal with the next game.

“We’ll just deal with the first game, and then, depending on what happens in that through injuries, if you do too much planning – that used to be the number one, plan, plan, plan – but now if you do too much planning, as soon as you get to that, it all changes.

“So, as a lot of us have learned through Covid, just deal with your next horizon, get that sorted, and then we’ll deal with the Saturday game five days later.”

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That next horizon, Covid permitting, is a bout with the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday, a match in which both teams will be searching for their first win of their respective campaigns.

Following four successive defeat to open their season, the Highlanders will be desperate to register their first win of the year, but McLeod was confident in Moana Pasifika’s abilities after having had ample time to prepare in training.

“We’re trying to build a system where it doesn’t matter if we’re playing the Highlanders, the Crusaders, the Chiefs,” he said.

“We understand we’re in a real tough conference in New Zealand, and so our system is about being connected, working for each other, and we’ve had a lot of time with each other.

“I think the boys were just that keen to go and smack someone else instead of smacking each other. We’ve spent a lot of time having pretty physical defensive systems and challenges.

“We had a really good [training] today, so I think the boys were just really keen to go out and express themselves.

“As you mentioned, we’ve got athletes that can do that all day long, and now we’ve got a system around them, they’ve got good confidence, they’ve worked hard, and we’re just going to go out there and continue what we did two weeks before.”

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