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End-of-Season Review - Moana Pasifika (2022)

Written by Max Sharp.


The inaugural season of Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby, was somewhat of a roller-coaster ride for their fans and players alike. The Auckland-based club, who played their home games in Mt. Smart Stadium, had players express the willingness to play matches in Samoa and Tonga, while many fans have expressed similar sentiment.


However, we won't discuss the logistical side of the franchise just yet, we'll need to mention the on-field performances first!


The Table


Moana Pasifika finished last on the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific table. Though the Fijian Drua had the same win-loss ratio and a worse points differential, Moana Pasifika only managed to gain two losing bonus points. The fact that the team's first two matches were postponed due to illnesses to players and the fact that another two of their matches were postponed, lead to Moana Pasifika playing four mid-week games, ahead of the usual weekend matches.


Aaron Mauger, the team's Head Coach, had to cap 11 players (including 4 from amateur clubs) outside his original 38-man Moana Pasifika squad, in order to make up the team's line-ups for mid-week games. The fact that these mid-week games were happening so often meant many players had issues centring around fatigue, while the likes of Joe Royal were playing just hours after meeting teammates. Don Lolo and Isi Tu'ungafasi, did not play during the season either, due to injury.


Notable Individual Performances


Quite a few of Moana Pasifika players were able to genuinely shine during the competition, despite the team's disappointing placing on the table.


Samoa's 5-cap number 8, Henry Time-Stowers, proved a real handful for defenders and attackers alike to deal with. Rarely-ever penalised, the 27-year-old passed a surprising amount for a forward, making 11 offloads. Time-Stowers finished the season having run the team's most metres with 757 (24th overall) and beat 12 defenders off 144 carries; he ranked third for carries in the season. Outstanding defence from his 10 games also saw Time-Stowers rank 14th for most tackles, with 133/143 attempts, for a rate of 93%.


It also goes without saying that Timoci Tavatavanawai and Levi Aumua were standouts in the backline.


Having arrived to the season late due to injury, Tavatavanawai ended up ranking first in the league for defenders beaten with 73, from just 8 games. The 24-year-old, who is one of eight siblings, must get a cap for Fiji in the near future, his 2 tries, 750 metres (26th overall) and 4 clean breaks off 83 carries (41st overall) were all also outstanding. Tavatavanawai was also happy to make inside passes too, finishing the season with 10 offloads (28th overall). This man is proof of technique over size.


Aumua's battle with his body fat percentage is now over and he has at last blossomed into the supreme athlete the Chiefs and Blues foresaw him becoming. Aumua used his 7kg weight loss well, having become quicker, but remains very strong. The centre's 9 games saw him run 637 metres (44th overall), beat 43 defenders (5th-most) and make 3 clean breaks; while he provided 9 offloads (joint-33rd most) and finished the season with an 83% tackle rate. A cap for Samoa is inevitable.


Season Statistics


In terms of statistics for the season, Moana Pasifika can be commended for moving the ball as much as possible; the team averaged 144 passes, 10 offloads and 24 defenders beaten per match, while their 96% rate of winning rucks (while they had possession) is to be complimented too.


Statistics in which the team could have done better though, was tackle completion, scrum wins and lineout wins.


Moana Pasifika would often concede tries by missing tackles; the team made a total of 1729 during the season and missed 307 for a total rate of 85%. In contrast, just the Melbourne Rebels (81%) and Fijian Drua (84%) had worse tackle completion rates for the season. Professional rugby teams typically have incredibly high tackle completion rates, Moana Pasifika's 85% was however, worse than 9 other teams. Though the team's Defence Coach, Dale MacLeod, has done fantastically with Southland's team culture, the side's tackle percentage could definitely be refined for 2023. A special mention to halfback Ere Enari; who despite being a halfback, finished the season with a tackle rate of 86%.


On the note of the scrum, the Scrum Coach is Pauliasi Manu; who has recently retired after playing his last season for the Japan-based Hino Red Dolphins in 2020. Manu wasn't given as much talent to work with at loosehead prop, compared to tighthead prop. Sekope Kepu, perhaps Australia's greatest-ever prop, was usually backed up by Joe Apikotoa coming off the bench; Apikotoa will deservedly play his first test for Tonga in the months to come. Ezekiel Lindenmuth (24 years old) and Abraham Pole (22 years old), however, are still very young props, the loosehead side of the scrum was not as stable due to the fact they aren't as experienced. These two are awaiting the prime years of their career, the scrum is likely to be far better in 2023.


The lineout, well, it speaks for itself. 78% isn't exactly ideal for a lineout win rate. Prior to the season, I felt that lock could be a weakness for Moana Pasifika. Injury to Mike McKee early in the season saw Sam Slade play lock often but ultimately, his best position is flanker. Alex McRobbie was also injured towards the end of the season and though Veikoso Poloniati carried his form from Manawatu into Super Rugby, he often found himself in a locking combination with Michael Curry; who at 1.96m, probably lacks the height to genuinely dominate a lineout. Sam Moli's lineout throwing hasn't quite reached the level of Ray Niuia or Luteru Tolai but at 23 years old, Moli will improve.


Season Highlights


Moana Pasifika will be feeling disappointed with their lacklustre win rate, but the two victories they did manage, give me a great deal of optimism for the team's future.


The kick-and-chase try to Danny Toala in extra time against his former team, the Hurricanes, was a spark of individual brilliance that we often saw from the backs throughout the season. In tight games, moments like these are key to getting the win. If this can happen in the team's third-ever Super Rugby game, it can happen again.


To finish off the season, Moana Pasifika also managed to defeat the Brumbies at home. This was despite a red card to their captain, Sekope Kepu, just 10 minutes into the match. The 32-22 victory ended up a very convincing result. The takeaway we can gain from this season finale, is that throughout all the hardship of COVID-19-induced postponements to matches and the multiple losses, Moana Pasifika's players developed a strong sense of mental toughness.


Conclusion


2022's Super Rugby Pacific season was the year in which Aaron Mauger and his squad, laid the foundation for ongoing success for Tonga and Samoa at test level in the years to come.


We're seeing the long-term purpose of Moana Pasifika find it's feet already; Tonga have named their 31-man squad ahead of the World Cup Qualifying Tournament and a whopping 11 of those players have been funnelled in from Moana Pasifika. Perhaps the biggest win out of these selections, is the fact that three of these 11 are very young.


For all the headlines surrounding Israel Folau's deserved call-up, the addition of Anzelo Tuitavuki (23 years old), Sam Moli (23 years old) and Manu Paea (20 years old) are crucial for Tonga's long-term future. We don't often see young men commit their long-term future for pacific island nations, but long-term; Moana Pasifika will definitely give the Tongan and Samoan coaches a talent pool of young players who can be the future of their nation's rugby.


On paper, the results haven't looked good for Moana Pasifika at all. But after a few seasons of players building cohesion in Moana Pasifika; we could perhaps see Samoa, in the Rugby World Cup playoffs, for 2027.


End-of-Season Grading for Moana Pasifika: B

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