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RUGBYPASS+ How Moana Pasifika hope to change the rugby landscape

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How Moana Pasifika hope to change the rugby landscape

Moana Pasifika’s inclusion into next year’s Super Rugby competition means a storm – a tropical cyclone, if you will – is approaching Auckland, a city already home to the Blues, a franchise with a strong Pasifika playing roster and support.

It may be mild initially, but it may also hold significant consequences for a competition that badly needs a shake-up and an outfit in the Blues that has had recent success, a triumph in this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, that has been sorely overdue after years of under-achievement.

So, it’s probably a mixed forecast depending on where you’re standing. If you’re a Blues administrator you may feel a little nervous at what’s approaching given the possibility that the hard-earned support (and playing roster) could be eroded bit by bit.

If you’re a Blues player or supporter with Pasifika heritage, the knowledge that Moana Pasifika are setting up at Mt Smart Stadium may bring excitement that there is another potential home for you in the Super City.

And even if you’re just a Kiwi rugby fan or only an occasional watcher of Super Rugby in Australia or some far-flung corner of the world, the arrival of a second franchise in Auckland, an arrival which represents the first true city derby rivalry in the competition, well, the forecast seems very favourable indeed.

A Moana Pasifika selection played an exhibition match against the Maori All Blacks in 2020. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger knows all of this, of course. He knows there will be perceived, and even real, tensions between his franchise in its inaugural season, and beyond, and the Blues.

It’s why in an interview with RugbyPass he explained that it was crucial for all parties to treat each other with respect. He knows too that it will likely take time for Moana Pasifika to be consistently competitive, especially against the established Kiwi teams. But perhaps the most important thing, he says, is that Moana Pasifika are about more than mere rugby.

“If we get that respect right there shouldn’t be any issues,” he says. “We can only pick 38 guys and that applies to other teams too… if players aren’t within that 38, we’re within our rights to have a conversation and then they make the choice. If it’s to come to us, that’s awesome, and if it’s to go to the Blues or another franchise then we’ll wish them well. That’s the beauty of the game – there’s no point in burning relationships.”

Mauger, whose franchise recently announced the signing of former Wallabies Christian Leali’ifano and Sekope Kepu in what is a promising statement of intent, says he had spoken several times with Blues head coach Leon MacDonald, with whom he played alongside for the All Blacks and Crusaders.

“We’ve had some good chats,” Mauger says. “He reached out early on. He’s been living up in Auckland for a while now and enjoys it up there. We’re great mates and I have a lot of time and respect for Leon as a man. We shared some pretty amazing experiences together too through our own playing journeys. We know each other pretty well.”

The 45-test former All Blacks midfielder, who has also coached at the Crusaders and Leicester, was in the midst of a journey of a different kind when he was approached by Williams and Jones, two genuine legends of the game.

And the derby that Aucklanders and many others will look forward to circling on their calendars from next year?

“It’s going to be a really exciting clash,” he says. “Hopefully it will be one of the best if not the best derby to come, us being in the same city. They’ve done really well, the Blues, over the last couple of years. They have a similar profile to us – they have a lot of Pasifika boys in that side. There’s a lot to be learned about how the Blues have gone about their work. We’ve admired them from afar. We look forward to having that opportunity to test ourselves against them.”

After being let go by the Highlanders last year, Mauger wasn’t overly enthused about rushing back into professional rugby. Spending time with his four children, including watching them play sport, was a higher priority, as was investigating a business interest, but when Sir Bryan Williams and Sir Michael Jones approached him at Eden Park five months ago about leading Moana Pasifika, it was difficult to say no.

“They really spoke to my heart and my link to the islands,” he says. “It was hard to turn down. It’s not going to be plain sailing because we’re the newbies. Certainly, I think we all have that in perspective. We’ll have to stay strong and stick together when we hit those mini storms.

“We also have to make sure we enjoy it. For me it’s the best game in the world and we’re going to be surrounded by some amazing people in a great competition.”

Aaron Mauger was previously head coach of the Highlanders. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The 45-test former All Blacks midfielder, who has also coached at the Crusaders and Leicester, was in the midst of a journey of a different kind when he was approached by Williams and Jones, two genuine legends of the game.

“I’ve always been really proud, even when I was representing New Zealand or the Crusaders or Canterbury, to represent the connection to my heritage, whether that was family at the game or someone in the crowd who might come up and let me know I was a relative or had a connection to the islands, and to see the joy that brought everybody.

“The last three or four years I’ve been a little more interested in digging a bit deeper into my own ancestral links and to understand that a bit more.

“It has obviously been a spiritual awakening in the last year or so being involved with Moana and sharing my story and sharing where we come from.

“Representing my family and particularly my grandmother who jumped on the waka a long time ago to come out here and create a better way – that’s a narrative we all share as Pasifika living in New Zealand; the courage, determination and resilience that it took from her and others through history to get us here.

After Christmas they will have four weeks of pre-season training before their yet-to-be-announced warm-up matches and then they will attempt to blaze a trail for young Pasifika men and women everywhere.

“Also, you look at the amount of work it’s taken us to get here in terms of the rugby opportunity; Beegee Williams over the last 30 years and Sir Michael [Jones] and your Peter Fatialofas and Eroni Clarkes, those Pasifika legends who really made a name for themselves and showed the way for young Pasifika men and women. To be in my position and have the opportunity to help steer it, is a real privilege.”

Mauger’s grandmother was born in Rurutu, a small island in Tahiti. “Her father was Tahitian and mother was Rarotongan,” Mauger says. “Her grandmother was Samoan. Nana was adopted back to an aunty in Rarotonga when she was four and grew up there. At 19 she got on a waka to New Zealand and met my grandfather who was a wharfie in Lyttleton. They had several kids and my mum Christine is the second oldest in family.”

Covid restrictions in New Zealand have prevented Mauger, 40, from moving to Auckland from Dunedin but when he does a pre-Christmas camp with his squad will be an important touchstone in the formation of the new franchise.

After Christmas they will have four weeks of pre-season training before their yet-to-be-announced warm-up matches and then they will attempt to blaze a trail for young Pasifika men and women everywhere.

They, and fellow newcomers the Fijian Drua, who will initially be based in Queensland, will face big challenges, as Mauger is well aware of.

Former Brumbies and Wallabies pivot Christian Lealiifano was the first signing announced by Moana Pasifika. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

They also, he says, have a responsibility to play a style of game that is true to their Pacific roots.

“Definitely. You look around the world of rugby at the moment and there are a lot of similarities from team to team. We have the opportunity to look at our strengths and profile. We have a pretty awesome DNA in terms of our physical attributes and we’d like to expose all of those strengths and play with our flavour. We’re planning on being a little bit different.

“Hopefully we’ll be the preferred team for all of our Pasifika people. We’ll be trying to inspire all of our Pasifika people in our community – through who we are. Rugby is not really the most important thing for us. Our aspirations are far bigger than the scoreboard. We want to show our people that their dreams are within their reach. When you get into that mentality you can achieve anything with the right support around you. That’s our focus. We hope in time that speaks to the hearts of our people and they want to support us even if they’ve been Crusaders or Blues fans for 20-odd years.

“And for everyone else in New Zealand, maybe we could become their second favourite team.

“It’s the same for our young men and women players – and hopefully we’ll get to the stage where we have a women’s team. We hope to become their team of choice through the quality of the infrastructure we put in place to get the best out of our people.

It’s probably hard for us to put a tangible outcome on it because we still don’t know exactly what we’re working with.

Aaron Mauger on his expectations for 2022

“We have an amazing history of richness and culture. Our people are our biggest asset. We have some amazing ground to stand on to help get us started and we’re looking forward to tapping into that more. It’s been a spiritual awakening for me and I know a lot of our boys are talking about that already. They know what it’s about and they know what we’re trying to achieve is more than just a game.

“We don’t have to manufacture something that’s not there.”

He added: “I’ve had a lot of people ask ‘What are your expectations?’ early on. It’s probably hard for us to put a tangible outcome on it because we still don’t know exactly what we’re working with. The focus is firmly on establishment and planting our roots for this team. Once we get through a pre-season we’ll be in a good position to identify that target.”

Mauger, busy with phone calls and ongoing administration tasks in the deep south of New Zealand, feels he is standing on the threshold of something special. His journey with Moana Pasifika has already been significant and when his men begin playing in the stadiums within New Zealand and Australia, that’s when he expects the support to build like a Pacific trade wind into something with far-reaching consequences.

“I think we’ll be well supported wherever we go,” he says.

“That’s the beauty of what we’re doing here. It’s another way to connect and inspire our people.”

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