Super Rugby Pacific begins without Moana Pasifika
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — After two years in which it was disrupted and diminished, Super Rugby was set to return on Friday in blockbuster form as an international tournament again and with two Pacific teams for the first time.
The multinational Super Rugby tournament which existed from 1996 came to a sudden halt in March 2020 when nations closed their borders against COVID-19. Australia and New Zealand, with five teams each, were able to quickly organize domestic tournaments and later to put together a brief trans-Tasman competition when travel between Australia and New Zealand became possible.
This was to be the year Super Rugby returned as a gleaming new tournament, with 10 teams from Australia and New Zealand and the addition of the Fijian Drua, based in Suva, and Moana Pasifika, based in Auckland and comprising players mostly from Samoa and Tonga.
However, the pandemic hasn’t yet released its grip. The border between New Zealand and Australia effectively remains closed, causing matches to be confined separately to each country and the Drua to join the Australian teams from a base in Queensland state.
Moana Pasifika was due to make its long-awaited debut on Friday as part of the first round of New Zealand matches. But its involvement has been postponed at least for a week because of a minor COVID outbreak within the squad.
All six New Zealand-based teams have moved to a hub in the South Island resort town of Queenstown for the first few weeks of the competition to lessen possible exposure to COVID as the omicron variant spreads in New Zealand.
The first round of matches in Australia will go ahead as scheduled with the Fijian Drua making their Super Rugby debut against the New South Wales Waratahs in western Sydney on Friday. The Queensland Reds play the Melbourne Rebels in Brisbane on Saturday and the ACT Brumbies play the Western Force at Canberra on Sunday.
The absence of Moana Pasifika takes the luster off the first round in New Zealand in which the Hamilton-based Chiefs will play the Dunedin-based Highlanders and the Christchurch-based Crusaders will play the Wellington-based Hurricanes on Saturday.
Moana Pasifika was heavily beaten by the Chiefs in a preseason match two weeks ago and they now will make their debut against the Chiefs on Feb. 25. The evidence of the loss to the Chiefs is that they are not well prepared or equipped for the season ahead.
The former Wallabies Sekope Kepu, as captain, and Christian Leali’ifano along with Samoa international Jack Lam gives them a small kernel of experience. But a large portion of their squad is inexperienced in Super Rugby and that lack of experience inevitably will come out in the tough New Zealand conference.
The triumph for Moana Pasifika may simply be in getting to the start line after Super Rugby organizers for so long cold-shouldered Pasifika players and slow-walked the creation of a Pasifika team.
Moana Pasifika should have made its debut Friday in front of its home crowd in Auckland. The move to Queenstown and postponement of its first match were more episodes in the team’s troubled gestation.
When told of the move to Queenstown, head coach Aaron Mauger said “we’ve had about a million challenges already just to get to this point. So this is just another one for us.”
Mauger comes to his new role with an overall losing record as a head coach. He previously has been in charge of the Leicester Tigers, the Highlanders and has been an assistant with the Crusaders and Samoa. He has worked with with teams of greater strength but he expects to see Moana Pasifika develop both its strength and distinctive style as the season progresses.
“Being the new team, still trying to establish our game plan and how that works, the leaders taking charge of how we’re going to play, there will be some teething issues no doubt,” Mauger said. “We’ll just focus on the things we can control and that’s part our our growth that will happen through the year.
“We don’t want to play like everyone else, we want to play our own way and that’s been the challenge. Starting with a blank canvas allows you to do that and really open the mind about doing it our way.”
The Fijian Drua also are light on Super Rugby experience — the team for their debut match contains only one player who previously has played in the tournament. But the team has had the chance to develop systems and teamwork in Australia’s domestic competition over the past three years which will provide some foundation.
They also have an Olympic gold medalist — sevens star Meli Derenalagi — in their first starting 15.
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