Spreading Their Wings

Former Manu Samoa No 10 and freelance rugby scribe Campbell Burnes is pleased to see Moana Pasifika spreading their wings.

By the time you read this, Moana Pasifika’s third season of Super Rugby will be well underway.

Cellar dwellers in 2022-23, this Auckland region-based franchise is anxious to connect with their fans. They seem to do that without any difficulty on social media, which apparently attracts big numbers. But while their reach is impressive, that doesn’t pay the bills. Crowds at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart, Auckland, their home for the first two seasons, were negligible. It may not have helped that the team won just three games out of 28 or that they were based near Auckland’s rugby league heartland and hinterland.

But there is fresh hope that a revamped roster under new head coach Tana Umaga can at least patch up some of the holes in their defence, stay in the fight for 80 minutes and score more tries under the aegis of new assistant coach Stephen Jones, a Wales Test centurion who brings an attacking mindset to his work.

That is all well and good. But Moana Pasifika need to be visible to a wider group of rugby fans. They have thus decided to take their home games around the northern region of New Zealand and into the Pacific.

The 2023 venture to Apia worked in every respect except the fact they lost to the Queensland Reds. It was just the second time a Super Rugby game had been played in Samoa. The first time was in 2017 and the ‘home’ team Blues royally stuffed that one up, arriving too late into town and overcharging for tickets.

But now Moana Pasifika will head to Tonga on May 4 to face the Highlanders. This is an historic first for the island kingdom, which was rocked by an earthquake and tsunami just two years ago. Given a large percentage of the Moana squad is Tongan, and no less than 13 represented Ikale Tahi at Rugby World Cup 2023, this is a good move.

The rugby folk of Tonga have been starved of home internationals in recent years. Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku’alofa was not up to code. But in 2023 Ikale Tahi hosted Australia A and Canada for Test matches, so things are looking up. I am reliably informed that the surface at the stadium is well grassed and the stadium is in much better shape.

The Moana Pasifika class of 2024 is drawn from far and wide – Australia, the Pacific, USA and Japan, as well as from around New Zealand, so it makes sense to try and get in front of fans from outside Auckland.

While their first home game was technically against the Fijian Drua in the Melbourne Super Round early in March, Moana Pasifika have a home game at North Harbour Stadium, their new training base, on March 8 against the Melbourne Rebels. They will also take the home changing rooms at Eden Park for the March 30 clash with crosstown rivals Blues, a franchise that is lukewarm about their presence in Auckland, and on May 12 head to Whangarei, a Blues venue, to face the Reds. They close their home season against the Chiefs and Waratahs back at Mt Smart.

Hopefully by then the groundswell of support will have grown, so we see several thousand through the gates. Having watched the Drua thrive playing in Fiji, hopefully Moana can tap into their large fanbase to better effect in 2024. After all, they offer a major point of difference for a competition that badly needs some spark and impetus.

Campbell Burnes on Rugby