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The 'two big learnings' Moana Pasifika will take from their debut outing

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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While the scoreline may not reflect a close match, Aaron Mauger has suggested that Moana Pasifika will be considerably better for their first pre-season hit-out against the Chiefs.

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The Moana Pasifika head coach watched on as his side fought valiantly throughout the 90-minute affair to keep within touching distance of their opposition for half the match before the flood gates opened late in the game.

The 61-7 result doesn’t look great on paper but Mauger emphasised after the match that the many inexperienced players in the squad have now had a small taste of what Super Rugby is all about, and that will put them in good stead ahead of their final pre-season game against the Highlanders next weekend, and their opening game of the Super Rugby Pacific competition against the Blues on February 17.

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“41 guys got some footy. Most guys got 30 minutes, which was a plan for us,” he said on Friday night. “[It was a] bit of a test and [an opportunity to] measure ourselves. Hard to really know where you’re at until you play against another opposition and played a quality team tonight.

“Probably the two real big learnings for us were around the breakdown and just winning our own set-piece ball so we couldn’t really build a lot of pressure. If we tidy those two things up, you build some more pressure, you see at the end there with the young guys we’ve got some talent out there. Just a matter of doing all those little things well around that set-piece and breakdown and we can do a bit more.”

“I thought we showed some real substance on D early on which is a real positive for us. I thought we were hitting well. Again, I thought we could have put a bit more pressure on the ball. The Chiefs did that to good effect, I think we probably missed a few opportunities. That’s just an intensity thing for a lot of our young guys. Now that they know what the intensity’s like, I think we’ll be better for it next week.”

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Just a handful of players within the squad boast any significant Super Rugby experience, with many of the team entering their first season of full-time professional rugby.

As such, while there’s no expectation they’ll suddenly transform into a world-beating side overnight, the hit-out against the Chiefs was their first opportunity to see what’s required to win matches at this level of the game.

“Quite a few of our guys hadn’t even played NPC rugby as well,” Mauger said. “And [we’ve] probably got seven or eight games who have a handful of NPC games and the gap between NPC and Super Rugby is a big gulf now. So the intensity was the big lesson for them but a great experience for a lot of those boys.

The added factor of most members of the team not having actually played together in the past was evident at times during the match, with miscommunications often leading to breakdowns in play. The scrum and lineout was also put under immense pressure by a seasoned Chiefs outfit.

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“It’s just experience, just tasting that intensity and then getting to that level ourselves through training and then taking it into next weekend’s game,” said Mauger.

“I think we’re gonna have to build our game early season just around our defence. We saw plenty of heart. I thought we were pretty well connected and the intensity in the collision was really good. I think when you stay a little bit higher on the inside to get more two-man shots and pressure the ball, [that] was probably an area of growth for us but on the whole, pretty good.

“The points really come through set-piece pressure so that’s certainly an area we need to look at next week.”

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The problems at the set-piece weren’t helped by the absence of former Crusader Isi Tuungafasi, who was a late scratching on game day.

“We had two guys, one guy came in yesterday and another guy just turned up today. Obviously Isi Tuungafasi pulled out. One of our boys literally got here about an hour before kick-off. He’s one of [scrum coach] Pauliasi [Manu]’s contacts so he called him in. We were lucky to have him in. He actually didn’t get on but it was awesome that he answered the call.

“But we’ll be better for that. Our young boys, first time at this level.”

Importantly, Moana Pasifika now have a squad of players with at least some exposure to Super Rugby on their books, even if it’s only a pre-season skirmish under their belts.

With next week’s match likely to resemble a more traditionally structured 80-minute affair, it will be the last opportunity for Mauger and his squad to get their ducks in a row before kicking off the season against the Blues. That means the top side will run out against the Highlanders, with many of the men who featured on Friday night getting the opportunity to quickly showcase what they’ve learned from their first hit-out.

“Cohesion’s going to be really important for us so building some combinations next week,” Mauger said. “We’ll be pretty much close to a full-strength starting XV – or best available XV – to start against the Highlanders and make sure those guys get bigger minutes as well. So the guys that got 30 tonight or 45 are going to have to go a little bit longer, closer to 60 and full games. That was always part of the plan as well.”

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