Aaron Mauger was taking a break from coaching till two of the biggest names in the game asked him to take on Moana Pasifika. The former All Black talked to Jim Kayes about culture, heritage and the chance to make history.
Aaron Mauger has a bit to prove.
As head coach of a start-up franchise he needs Moana Pasifika to do well in Super Rugby’s revamped Pacific competition, but not just for the sake of the franchise.
Mauger needs to succeed as a head coach too after being let go by the Highlanders, having earlier been sacked by England club Leicester.
So there is a bit resting on this new gig with Super Rugby’s new boys, not that Mauger is worried.
“Moana Pasifika is the only head coaching job I would have taken on at this stage of my life,” he says.
“I’ve been involved in rugby all of my adult life and it is demanding. The game has been awesome to me and I owe everything to the game.
“It’s provided many opportunities for me and for us as a family but it demands a lot from you.
“I was content moving away from the game in terms of being at the top as a coach, but I really enjoyed the connection last year with the Moana team (he was assistant coach for the game against the Māori All Blacks) and to my heritage.
“I am really proud of my heritage.”
Mauger has Tahitian and Cook Islands roots through his late grandmother, Timeteri Roomta’aroa, whose grandmother was Samoan.
But he wanted to help out in the background with Moana Pasifika. “I didn’t really want to coach.”
But that changed when two of the greatest All Blacks stepped in, Sir Bryan Williams and Sir Michael Jones, both of whom had coached Samoa and were immensely proud of their heritage and keen for Moana Pasifika to be a success.
How does anyone say no to those two!
Mauger is excited at the challenge ahead, by the clean slate the franchise starts with and at the opportunity to “bring our cultures into a high performance world”.
“We have to make sure that we do it our way, that our flavour is infused in everything we do.
“We have to resonate with the community as much as perform on the field, and show who we are, and what we stand for.”
The team’s home ground is Mt Smart Stadium but they will train at different places around Auckland - and especially south Auckland - and do a lot in schools and the community.
Mauger says his players will be role models, who play hard, but fair, and will serve and inspire their community.
“Winning is a by-product of the environment. The results will come. We will find our way in this competition and ideally that will be early but we are going into a tough competition and people will have to be patient.”
Recruiting players has been tough as the New Zealand and Australian franchises already have the cream of the local crop contracted, while others, like Charles Piutau and Steve Luatua, are playing overseas.
Moana offered Ma’a Nonu a deal but he is heading back to the USA, but they have picked up veteran former Wallabies Sekope Kepu and Christian Leali’ifano, Samoa’s Jack Lam and former Warrior Solomone Kata.
Many in the squad though as NPC players who fall into the categories of ‘promising’, ‘developing’ or ‘fringe Super Rugby’.
Mauger has also added former Hurricanes No8 Filo Tiatia to his coaching staff after the two test All Blacks was let go by Auckland.
Mauger knows a fair bit about Super Rugby success as a player as the 45-test All Blacks midfielder won four titles in eight seasons with the Crusaders. But he has failed to replicate that as a coach. In his three years as an assistant to Todd Blackadder the Crusaders made the final once but lost in controversial fashion to the Waratahs.
He couldn’t get the Highlanders to the finals in his three years in Dunedin and will find life tough, at least at first, with Moana Pasifika.
But few teams have been instantly successful. Super Rugby kicked off in 1996 and only nine teams have won the title in a competition that has included up to 18 teams.
For the first decade it was dominated by the Blues, Crusaders and Brumbies, with the Bulls, Reds, Waratahs, Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes winning between 2007 and 2016, before the Crusaders domainted again.
On field success is important, absolutely, but for a long time the Hurricanes delivered the biggest away crowds in Super Rugby and in the early 2000s they averaged in the mid-20,000s for their own games at what is now Sky Stadium in Wellington.
They marketed themselves not on results, but on their star power with players like Johan Lomu, Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga, and told their fans to ‘expect the unexpected’.
For a long time, that was enough, but eventually fans want their team to win.
Mauger says if Moana Pasifika are “aligned” then they will deal with the pressure to succeed but he also stresses they have to stay humble regardless.
Mauger was a good player, a steady and consistent second five with plenty of tactical smarts. He was sorely missed as he sat, unwanted, in the stands when the All Blacks lost in the quarterfinal to France in the 2007 World Cup, his final ‘test’ before heading to England to play for Leicester, a team he would later coach.
And he has plenty of experience as a coach having worked in a high performance role since 2013.
The 40-year-old father of four comes from a strong rugby family as his brother Nathan was also an All Black as were uncles Graeme and Stephen Bachop.
Coaches who had a significant influence on Mauger were Wayne Smith, Robbie Deans and Steve Hansen but he also credits All Blacks psychologist Gilbert Enoka who helped to shape him as a player, coach and person.
At times he sounds a bit like John Mitchell and his journey though uses a Hansen ‘bone deep’ when discussing the team’s environment and says they have to all be in the same waka to succeed.
“And we have to acknowledge the giants of the game who came before us and who have carved this path for us. It is an awesome opportunity to do this for the first time.”