If anyone doubted the ability of Moana Pasifika to mix it with the best in Super Rugby Pacific this season, then they received a forthright rebuke over the past week.
The Super Rugby debutants secured their first ever win in the competition last Friday when Danny Toala scored a stunning try in golden point extra-time to secure a 24-19 defeat of the Hurricanes.
Moana Pasifika were back at Mt Smart Stadium on Tuesday to contest the first of back-to-back local derbies against the Blues, fielding a team showing 15 changes from the one that started their match against the Hurricanes due to Henry Taefu’s late withdrawal.
It is testament to the work being done on the training pitch by Aaron Mauger and his coaching staff, and the support from World Rugby, the Samoan and Tongan unions, the New Zealand government and others, that Moana Pasifika will feel they could have won.
As it was, the Blues – down to 14 men following Nepo Laulala’s 57th-minute red card – repelled wave after wave of pressure before sewing up a 32-19 win with Finlay Christie’s late try.
“We talked about small wins last week that led to an ultimate outcome and there were so many more to celebrate tonight,” Mauger said.
“We were close. It's a good feeling to be competing with the best teams in this competition.”
Defeat leaves Moana Pasifika 11th in the Super Rugby Pacific standings ahead of Saturday’s return match at Eden Park. But the newcomers have games in hand on the teams around them and can take heart from the improvement they have made so far.
That was certainly the message that Mauger was drilling into his players in the turnaround between the historic Hurricanes win and the derby in Auckland. As rugby writer Marc Hinton stated on Tuesday: “Make no mistake, Moana Pasifika are very much the real deal.”
“It was a very proud moment,” Mauger said following the victory against the Hurricanes. “The belief has been a big one.
“We’re really trying to drive into these guys they belong here, that this team belongs here. Then it’s been a matter of how fast are we going to get there?
“It’s still early days. We have been looking at the small wins along the way. We had a lot more small wins in the second half at the weekend, which meant we were more even around territory and possession.
“What it showed was when we control the ball, we can control the game. The spirit, heart, and energy towards the end were really good. It’s what got us through.
“We’re proud of getting the result. But we know we’re in a brutal competition against quality New Zealand teams, and the reset was making sure we keep it humble, and don’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
A key priority of the £3.6 million funding package from World Rugby that Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua will share over an initial three-year period is to enhance the player development pathway and bridge the gap between local and international rugby in the Pacific Islands.
It is hoped that those pathways will in turn lead to an improvement in the competitiveness of Samoa and Tonga – and Fiji through the Drua – at Rugby World Cups.
Of the 42 players that pulled on the Moana Pasifika jersey across the matches against the Hurricanes and the Blues, 15 were aged 24 or younger.
Manu Paea was one of those, the young scrum-half making his first Super Rugby appearance in the win against the Hurricanes. He admits to being “starstruck” when he came on in the closing stages of normal time.
“I couldn’t believe it myself that I was making my debut – and what a game to make my debut in. It was just a surreal feeling, it was an awesome feeling,” the 20-year-old told the Pacific Flair podcast.
“[The win] has just lifted all aspects in our game to another level, especially at training and everything. It’s good that the boys finally believe that we can believe that we can do it.”
Having two teams in Super Rugby will enhance the player development pathway in the Pacific Islands and builds on the progress already achieved through the World Rugby Pacific Challenge and Pacific Combine.
It would not be a surprise to see some of the uncapped members of the Moana Pasifika squad follow in their footsteps on the road to RWC 2023.