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Solomone Funaki with fans in Tonga.

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Super Rugby Pacific Review: What the most successful season for Moana means to the fans

PMN News Sports Reporter Matt Manukuo reflects on Moana’s most successful season to date, highlighting the ups and downs of 2024.

Now that this year’s Super Rugby champions have been crowned, it’s a chance to reflect on Moana Pasifika’s run this year, and how it should encourage fans to get behind the team!

Collecting four wins from 14, Moana completed their most successful season to date.

And from speaking to Pacific sporting great Willie Poching, it’s clear having rugby legend Fa’alogo Tana Umaga as head coach has been a major factor in their turnaround.

“Overall looking back on it, I think it’s been a positive season and a season of growth,” Poching says.

“They’ve had two tough seasons before that, where they were just finding their feet.

“I think Tana’s come in to put his footprint on it, and I think that footprint has yielded some really strong results and performances. With two weeks to go, they were still in contention for the playoffs, which is something no one would have given them a chance to do.”

And for myself, the energy this year felt different, as I noticed a shift in attitude and effort throughout the year, ensuring they had a chance to make the finals for the first time in their short history.

So despite having a mountain to climb to regain the interest and trust of the rugby world after an abysmal 2023, with a new coach and new high-level experiences, this year proven to be Moana’s chance to showcase“who they really are”.

2024 Super Rugby Season

Eighteen players from Moana featured at last year's Rugby World Cup spread between Manu Samoa and ‘Ikale Tahi. And I expected the experience of playing internationally would also help at the club level which, from speaking to some of these representatives, was a theory they also endorsed.

“We’re just gonna try to carry that self-belief and work ethic from what we did in Samoa, bring it here and see if we can create something special with this Moana team,” said Manu Samoa and Moana hooker Sama Malolo during a pre-season media session.

That “special” something sparked when Moana beat the Fijian Drua for the first time, in just the second round. They then went on to beat the Melbourne Rebels a few rounds later, and with that result, they had already improved from their record last year.

In the next three rounds though, Moana suffered three straight losses with a combined 175 points scored against them. Second-half efforts seemed to cripple the side, and you could see the effort fall from the team as the game progressed.

But, a huge win against the Reds in Northland relit the spark in the squad. They had another huge game the following week in Fiji, facing a Drua side that had looked unstoppable at home. But despite a huge effort from Moana, they went down 24-17 to the Fijians.

The remainder of the season was an up-and-down time for Moana, showing good signs early in games and often taking leads into the break. But second-half fatigue and frustration crippled Moana’s game, which would become a key issue that Fa’alogo identified as a work-on.

The remaining three games for Moana were must-wins to secure a place in the finals, and intrigue grew as this huge possibility loomed. But Moana would only win one of these final three, bowing out to the Crusaders in the last round.

Moana Pasifika during their game at Teufaiva Stadium in Tonga.

Empty Home Grounds

The issue of identity was another topic to arise.

Moana played at five separate venues in 2024 as home games including; Eden Park, Go Media Stadium, FMG Stadium, Northland Stadium and Teufaiva Stadium.

And without a set home ground and set routine for players and fans on game day - these games did not attract the crowds. Moana also trained at Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium, but not once did they play at the venue.

I asked Poching about this issue, and why it is important for Moana to sort out some of the off-field issues, which include financial struggles.

“I think they’re on an uneven playing field compared to other franchises in New Zealand. They don’t have a home ground, which is tough. They don’t have a permanent training base, so that’s difficult to attract more quality players.

“It’s difficult to have any stability within yourselves, [when] you have no ownership on where you play. The Blues have Eden Park and that’s their fortress, but what do Moana have?

“They’ve gotta try to establish themselves, and have a team that can represent Pasifika. But in a professional environment, you’ve got to have professional backing and professional amenities to work at every single day.”

Given Poching’s long career as both a player and coach in the rugby league, we discussed the value of having a place to call home for elite athletes.

He says going through the same stadium entrance on game day, entering through the same doors to your lockers, and preparing for the game in the same way becomes an integral part of a player’s identity and this flows through to better performances.

But instead Moana played every match as an away game - and often to totally empty grandstands. Whereas, for every game they played in the Pacific, they attracted huge numbers, and their performance also lifted.

In Auckland, the city is already over-supplied with professional sports teams, with the Warriors and the Blues also calling the region home, while North Harbour Stadium is too far away for a lot of our Pacific communities to reach.

So it seems clear to me the resolution to this issue will be in finding a way to play more games either in Apia or Nuku’alofa. That’s where their identity lies, with our people, the people of the Moana.

An opportunity for Pacific players to learn

Moana made headlines at the end of last season with the announcement that Hurricanes veteran Julian Savea signed a one-year deal with the club. Since then he has extended for another year with the side.

Savea became the first ex-All Black to sign with the team, adding another high-level international player, alongside the likes of Wallabies veterans Sekope Kepu and Christian Lealiifano.

Nearly ten players from Moana made their Super Rugby Pacific debut this year, with many arriving from club and NPC level footy. So I think having these veterans sign on not only increased the team's profile but also instilled a sense of encouragement for younger Pacific players.

And having veterans like Savea, Kepu, and Lealiifano by your side at training or games, with Fa’alogo Tana Umaga at the helm provided a bucket load of experience for the inexperienced players to learn from.

Poching also spoke about the impact these senior players would be having on the younger squad members.

“I think the franchise is there to help more of our Pacific players at that level, expose them to the riggers and the quality of that type of football. Playing against quality players, you become a better player yourself.

“They’re starting to attract some bigger names, Julian Savea was a big signing this year presence wise. But also looking at the confidence the other players around them got by having him there.

“They’d already have Sekope Kepu, Christian Lealiifano, but adding someone a little younger who will be there next year, who’s been there, done that, a World Cup winner, the group would have grown.

“Sitting next to him in the dressing room would have been such a big boost! And speaking to those people involved in the Moana franchise, that’s been a big thing for them - for the younger guys to learn to be a professional day to day.”

That’s what our people are about, helping the next person up, looking and observing, and applying the knowledge in our own lives. So I think that’s been a huge encouragement at the club, to be nurturing its talent with opportunity, so our younger players can grow.

Fans in Nuku'alofa watching a Moana Pasifika scrum.

Overall reflections

Last year when Moana Pasifika was on their 10-plus game losing streak - many were wondering what was even the purpose of the club. But despite the doubters, their supporters, our people continued to turn up and the players remained committed to deliver positive results.

This year, while four wins might not be the best result for some rugby analysts, for a team like Moana, it’s a step in the right direction given it’s still in the adolescence stage of its development.

Despite the ongoing pressures off the field, Moana’s playing group and coaching staff have done well in navigating the pressures - and have produced some encouraging results.

And given these improvements, I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had with Moana’s inaugural captain Sekope Kepu ahead of his final game of rugby. He spoke of the importance of the sport to our Pacific people, and his gratitude to finish off his career at a team that gives back to the Pacific.

“It’s humbling, it’s probably been the most fulfilling the last three years I’ve been here. To be able to help our people, learn about our culture and how beautiful it is, and how to lead and inspire.

“You never realise how much rugby and sports can do, inspiring our people from the islands and around the globe.”

Speaking about their game in Tonga revealed a greater purpose and responsibility Moana Pasifika has for our people.

“To go back to Tonga, to play there for the first time was very humbling. Growing up hearing about Teufaiva, I’m very grateful to play there with Moana.

“You see the kids, all in uniform drenched from head to toe. Those are magical moments, it’s part of the reason you play the game. And for us Moana, it’s giving them hope that playing professionally isn’t too far a dream to come true.”