29 Sep 2021

Super Rugby's Pacific Reset

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:09 am on 29 September 2021

The push for a Pacific Island Super Rugby team has been decades in the making and finally, in February, it will come to fruition with not one but two new teams, Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua.

After being awarded a conditional licence back in April, the wait for confirmation dragged on for months, before "Super Rugby Pacific" was finally rubber-stamped in August.

So with less than five months to go until kick-off, how ready are they?

The Fijian Drua have announced 10 players in their inaugural squad, including Olympic sevens gold medallists Napolioni Bolaca and Ratu Mele Derenalagi, with the remaining 27 set to unveiled over the next couple of weeks.

Napolioni Bolaca challenges the New Zealand defence during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal Match.

Napolioni Bolaca challenges the New Zealand defence during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Rugby Sevens Men's Gold Medal Match. Photo: AFP

Covid-19 means the team will base itself in Australia for their inaugural campaign and Interim CEO Brian Thorburn admitted the move won't come cheap.

"There's well in excess of two million dollars, probably closer to three million dollars in extra costs that we're going to have to bear putting our team and our squad up for eight months, both accommodation and meals and so forth, and that's a tangible cost," he said. 

"The other difficult one we're going to have to work really closely on is the welfare of our players being away from their families for eight months."

Basing the team in another country has also created other challenges, Thorburn explained. 

"We've got visa issues, we've got foreign tax issues, we've got accommodation issues, and as a result, additional financial burdens, but it's exciting and that's just what we have to go through in this Covid challenge world to get ourselves to a place where we can compete with other franchises."

The Fijian Drua will host the Australian NRC final after beating Canberra in Lautoka.

The Fijian Drua previously competed in the Australian NRC competition. Photo: Fiji Rugby

"So we are going to be marching into a quarantine camp in Australia in the middle of October, we'll put them through a couple of weeks of quarantine and then we'll have a three month solid hit out with them to prepare physically, mentally, tactically, ready to hit the park come February," Thorburn said.

"Fijian teams have often been many people's second favourite team. If they follow team A they'll also follow Fiji, so we're hoping we will also get a lot of crowd support in Australia."

Moana Pasifika announced on Tuesday they will play their home matches at Auckland's Mount Smart Stadium] until 2028.

Interim CEO Pelenato Sakalia said the pandemic halted plans to play some games in the Pacific next year but he insisted their commitment to strengthening rugby in Samoa and Tonga remained.

"We want to take games home to our home nations. Is it going to make it really uncertain to do that? Yes, it's really hard, our chances of being able to go to Samoa," he said.

"We can't go to Tonga because Tonga unfortunately they don't have a stadium that meets the international criteria for professional games but Samoa does, but it's highly unlikely we will be able to go to Samoa (next year).

"I think for us, the best thing that Moana Pasifika can do is we need to stay strong and connected with our programs for both Samoa and Tonga, in terms of bringing their players into our systems and processes here in Auckland but most importantly it's how we perform on the field, in terms of that Pasifika way."

Mt Smart Stadium has been confirmed at the home ground for Moana Pasifika.

Mt Smart Stadium has been confirmed at the home ground for Moana Pasifika. Photo: Photosport

Moana Pasifika have already signed 30 players ahead of their inaugural campaign, and have another 15 players on stand-by.

The team received a lot of interest from players all over the world, but Sakalia said delays in confirming their licence forced many to sign elsewhere.

"There's no way any of the interest that our Pasifika players have - they can't seriously start contemplating things until at a minimum you've got certainty of a licence," he said. 

"So we've only been kind of working realistically with a degree of certainty for two and a half months."

Despite frustration over the initial delays, Sakalia said the Pacific Islands are excited to finally be a part of Super Rugby.

Moana Pasifika Interim CEO Pelenato Sakalia.

Moana Pasifika Interim CEO Pelenato Sakalia. Photo: Supplied

"The opportunity that both Drua and Moana Pasifika have is to cement the missing piece that the respective home nations have had to really build and get Pacific rugby back to where it truly belongs," he said.Previously, Pacific Island rugby players had to go offshore if they wanted to make a living from the 15-man game.

Brian Thorburn said Super Rugby Pacific was an opportunity to change that.

"We just can't wait to have a team on the paddock representing Fiji," he said. 

"We won't get all of our players from Europe back initially but over time we will and most importantly we will close the backdoor and provide an opportunity for our best players to stay at home and play rugby, not get snaffled by others or chase the money overseas."

Drua coach Mick Byrne has backed his players to make the playoffs in their inaugural campaign, with eight spots up for grabs in the 12-team competition.

Moana Pasifika are taking a more cautious approach, stressing their plan to grow and develop a squad over a five year period.
 
"It's not so much about the win-rate - which is what everyone really focuses on -but it's the performance," Sakalia said. 

Moana Pasifika during the cultural challenge before the match between Moana Pasifika and the Maori All Blacks 2020.

A Moana Pasifika was beaten by the Māori All Blacks at the end of 2020. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

"When you look at year one you want to do justice to what it is you're trying to do with your game, you want to do justice to the excitement of your fans and then the third thing is you are being competitive with other teams. In terms of wins and all the rest of it we will see how that goes when we get into the season."

The Drua and Moana Pasifika are also discussing plans to create a trophy that will be contested between Super Rugby's newest teams.

The teams will meet twice during the regular season and Brian Thorburn is keen to have some silverware up for grabs.

"Our Bledisloe Cup. I don't know what the trophy is but I'm going to get some people to research it and whether it's named after an explorer or a unifying figure - something that blends Fiji with Samoa and Tonga," he said. 

Fijian Drua Interim CEO Brian Thorburn.

Fijian Drua Interim CEO Brian Thorburn. Photo: Supplied

"We'll do this together and every time we play each other we'll be playing for whatever that ends up being."

Thorburn said Pacific Island fans were fantastic at supporting their teams and he believed Moana Pasifika and the Drua will set attendance records in their debut campaign.

Pelenato Sakalia said it was "a fantastic idea" and suggested the two teams could wear special heritage jerseys for the unique clash that has been dubbed the "Battle of the Pacific".

"It sent shivers down my spine. I totally agree. It's going to be, just thinking about it, the first game and just the crowds. Just crazy islanders everywhere trying to out-sing and out-chant each it will be just (great)."

"...Fiji has been the flag-bearer of Pacific rugby at that international level and for Moana Pasifika having the opportunity to have a crack at Drua and to compete with Drua it's just going to be so awesome, and Pacific players they love playing each other. They love that contest."