Despite an impending storm and tsunami warning set to rain havoc over the City of Sails, Auckland decided to put on a picture-perfect Friday night to kick off Round 13 of DHL Super Rugby Pacific. In their final game at the newly named Go Media Stadium Mt Smart for 2023, Moana Pasifika welcomed the defending champion Crusaders to their fale for the very first time. With a nail-biter of a match between the two teams in their first encounter at Orangetheory stadium in Round Seven, the stage was set for Friday’s highly anticipated rematch to be a truly captivating contest.
Moana Pasifika have experienced a roller-coaster of emotions at their home ground in 2023. In the hopes of capturing that illustrious win that has alluded them all year, the home team were facing a tall task in a Crusaders team, just a week removed from defeating the Blues. Keeping the Aucklanders try-less for just the third time in their Super Rugby history, the Cantabrians as always are peaking at the pointy end of the season and were on the hunt for five competition points.
A boisterous Moana Pasifika crowd lay hush as the entire 42-man roster took the field to lay down the Fa’avae. On a night where emotions were high for a multitude of reasons, the atmosphere was building around the stadium and the men on field looked primed to put on a performance to match.
It was the visitors that got off to a flying start as they attacked the Moana Pasifika line. Despite the polished Crusaders offence, the home team answered with grueling defence led by imposing prop Abraham Pole. Reminiscent of the opening stanza against the Rebels in their last home game, Moana Pasifika did well to improve this week and exit from their danger zone early by forcing two Crusaders mistakes. After entrusting the devasting Levi Aumua with the responsibility of exit play hit ups, the second exit saw Aumua put in a deceiving chip kick which was swooped up by fullback William Havili. Despite the play not coming off cleanly, the intent behind their willingness to defy expectations showed they came to play on Friday night.
After a back-and-forth exchange of bruising carries, some brilliant off-loading and support play saw the Crusaders score one of the best tries of the competition 12 minutes in. Starting from their own side of halfway, the Southerners dished up six offloads while breaking through the advantage line to see blindside Christian Lio-Willie dive over to open the scoring.
The Crusaders were looking to put their foot on the throttle as they shifted beautifully to get back into Moana Pasifika’s 22. Despite looking threatening, Moana Pasifika’s brutal defence ultimately kept them from crossing the line for their second. Unfortunately, the home team conceded a penalty which gave Fergus Burke the opportunity to make the score 10-0.
Stealing a highball from their own kick, Sacred Heart’s Chay Fihaki streamed down the right sideline to set his team just ten metres out from the line. Shifting swiftly to the other sideline, the Crusaders executed a simple draw and pass which saw 20-year-old Mako Macca Springer dive over in the corner to make it 15-0 23 minutes in.
The defending champs followed up almost immediately through their forwards with one off runners off the ruck which saw openside Corey Kellow dive over the line, but was overturned by the referee for being held up.
Back with ball in hand, the Crusaders pushed the pace yet again with five minutes remaining in the half. Breaking free down the left, a silky exchange between Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan led to the All Black fullback scoring his team’s third on the left sideline.
With a tall mountain to climb in the second forty being down 29-0, Moana Pasifika pounced immediately off the restart. The 89-cap Crusader Head Coach Aaron Mauger made several substitutions at the break.
A completely new front row and star winger Timoci Tavatavanawai being the early additions which played the catalyst for a tightly contested second forty.
The reinforcements proved to be a successful move by Mauger as the new front three helped their side secure a scrum penalty, taking them to ten metres out from the Crusaders line. With great field possession, Moana Pasifika were looking to capitilse from their first attacking opportunity. Playing under multiple advantages, former Crusader Tima Fainga’anuku muscled his way through the Crusaders forwards to open the scoring for his team and potentially spark a monumental come back at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart.
In an exciting continuous passage, which saw brilliant interplay between Tavatavanawai, Havili, Tolai, and Aumua, Moana Pasifika marched forward 60 metres but once again fell just short of retaining the ball.
Levi Aumua made a signature half break which triggered the highlight of the match for the home crowd. Setting up Christian Lealiifano down the left flank, the first five freed the ball for Tavatavanawai to make speed bumps of the three covering Crusaders defenders. With 30 metres to go, the man they call Jimi was brought down and out an arm’s length away from the line, but the hair-raising roar from the crowd showcased how much support the Moana Pasifika organisation has.
Regardless of the 41-7 result, the Crusaders only outscoring Moana Pasifika 12-7 in the second half, the fans were treated to moments of brilliance during the 80-minute period. Watching their team put on a performance to their best ability on the biggest stage in their last home match was enough to make the loyal fans proud who still hung around for pictures with the team post-game.
Leading up to the match, the team were inspired by a series of community visits and giveaways, and it paid dividends having several schools attend on Friday night. Aorere College, Southern Cross Campus, Otahuhu College, Mount Roskill Grammar and St Paul’s were among the 19 schools to come out in numbers. An Auckland 1B 1st XV Curtain Raiser between Onehunga High School and Mangere College also saw a large teenage presence at the game. The chants, energy, and atmosphere they brought really gave the stadium an electric buzz that kept the men on field motivated for the entire 80 minutes.
It was an electric atmosphere to end the year and Moana Pasifika would like to thank every one of their devoted and loyal fans who have been backing the team all season and came out in the cold conditions to support the squad. Despite the results, the fans have played an instrumental role in the growth and development over the year, and the organisation can’t wait to see them again in 2024!
Moana Pasifika end the year on a two game away tour which will see the squad travel to Lautoka, Fiji and Sydney, Australia. Although it’ll be acknowledged as an away game in front of an adoring Lautoka crowd, next Saturday’s marquee matchup will be an amazing opportunity for the Moana Pasifika organisation to visit one of their homelands for the very first time and connect with many of their fans from Fiji.See all news