It’s been a long time coming, but Moana Pasifika have, at last, begun their Super Rugby Pacific journey against an inexperienced Crusaders outfit in Dunedin on Friday.
After weeks of Covid isolation and bubble life in Queenstown, two postponed fixtures and the emotional impact of the Tongan tsunami, Moana Pasifika finally took to the field for the first time as a Super Rugby entity at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
It was a match in which they were tipped by many to succumb to a heavy defeat against the might of the Crusaders, and while they did eventually fall to a 33-12 defeat, Moana Pasifika hardly did themselves an injustice in the opening few minutes.
In fact, one could even say the new expansion franchise produced an inspired effort against Super Rugby Pacific’s perennial heavyweights as they defended their hearts out while the Crusaders dominated possession and territory in the first half.
It wasn’t just in the tackle where Moana Pasifika impressed, as they stifled their opponents’ attack with some snaffled balls at the breakdown and some strong rolling maul defence.
Ill-discipline was, however, a constant theme in Aaron Mauger’s side’s game, and Crusaders pivot Simon Hickey looked to capitalise on that by lining up a shot at goal early on, but was surprisingly wayward from the boot.
The decision to try and score from the tee was strange given the Crusaders’ dominance, and they were soon made to pay for their failure to register on the scoreboard through Hickey’s boot.
Not long afterwards, a blistering Moana Pasifika counter-attack led by exciting young playmaker Lincoln McClutchie allowed his side to burst into enemy territory, and some quality support play enabled Tongan flanker Solomone Funaki to cross in the corner.
With their first-ever try in Super Rugby in the history books, the foundations looked in place for Moana Pasifika to spring an upset of enormous proportions, especially with their ability to withstand the constant pressure the Crusaders put them under.
However, Scott Robertson’s side slowly but surely worked their way back into the encounter, as some patient build-up play and continual poor discipline by Moana Pasifika laid the platform for tries to Mitchell Dunshea and Ethan Blackadder.
Even then, a 14-5 half-time lead didn’t reflect the dominance of possession and territory the Crusaders enjoyed in the opening stanza.
It was indicative, though, of how much Moana Pasifika were punching above their weight to stay within touching distance of the Crusaders, but some stern words at the break appeared to pay dividends for the latter team – at least in the opening few minutes.
Just six minutes into the second half, replacement hooker Codie Taylor marked his first Super Rugby Pacific appearance of the year with a rolling maul try, a feat of which he replicated in injury time.
Those were the only times that the Crusaders took full advantage of a lineout deep in opposition territory, but their early and late second half fortunes were as good as it got for them for much of the second half.
A lengthy lull in play after Taylor’s first try ensued as neither team could get much going while handling errors and stoppages reigned supreme, although Moana Pasfika showed glimpses of promise with ball in hand.
Those glimpses eventually turned into considerable spells in possession of the ball, during which time the Crusaders found themselves under sustained defensive pressure, leading to a string of penalty concessions by the men in red and black.
That pressure proved to be insurmountable, with a lack of cohesion between a panicked Richie Mo’unga and Pablo Matera allowing Christian Leali’ifano to pounce on the ball and offload to Fine Inisi, who swooped to score Moana Pasifika’s second try.
Only nine points separated the two teams with 10 minutes to play, but the Crusaders struck back almost instantly via debutant prop Abraham Pole after a lapse in concentration from the re-start by Moana Pasifika gifted their opponents with possession.
That will be a source of frustration for Mauger, whose side looked within touching distance of the Crusaders, but let that opportunity slip in the blink of an eye.
Aside from that, and a shaky scrum that will need steadying next week, Moana Pasifka should hold their heads high for an incredibly respectable first-up effort in Super Rugby Pacific.
The Crusaders, meanwhile, will be eager to inject their frontline players back into their lineup after a disjointed display in which they should have held a far healthier lead by half-time, and they almost paid the repercussions for that in the second half.
Nevertheless, being the side that they are, the Crusaders found a way into the winners’ circle, and have thus strengthened their lead at the summit of the Super Rugby Pacific table.
(Tries to Mitchell Dunshea, Ethan Blackadder, Codie Taylor (2) and Abraham Pole; 3 conversions to Simon Hickey, conversion to Richie Mo’unga)
Moana Pasifika 12
(Tries to Solomone Funaki and Fine Inisi; conversion to Lincoln McClutchie)