2022 will see the long-awaited introduction of not one, but two Pacific Island super rugby teams, Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua. Super rugby fans do not need any reminding of the talent, athleticism, and power of Pacific Island players, NZ rugby would not be the powerhouse it is now if not for the islands. Now all of those profuse talents and abilities are set to be unleashed in Super Rugby, in a uniquely Pacific way. Traditionally, introducing new teams to Super Rugby has not gone well for the newcomers.
The Cheetahs introduced in 2006 struggled, the Western force were much the same. The Melbourne Rebels have shown flashes of competitiveness in the Australian conference without ever really threatening. 2016 saw the Sunwolves & Jaguares join super rugby; ultimately only the Argentinian side were competitive eventual runners up in the 2019 final to the champion Crusaders.
The task in front of the Drua and Moana Pasifika sides isn’t an easy one; talent won’t be lacking for either side with the Drua featuring Olympic gold medalists Kalione Nasoko, Napolioni Bolaca and Ratu Meli Derenalagi, and Moana Pasifika securing the services of former Wallabies Chritisian Lealiifano & Sekope Kepu and young stars Levi Aumua, Lincoln McClutchie & Ereatara Enari.
The Crusaders have been the most successful Super Rugby team in history, a legacy which belies their inauspicious start to the competition, finishing bottom of the table in the debut SANZAR competition. Someone who knows a lot about success is Crusaders head coach and former All Black Scott Robertson. Robertson is regarded as one of the most innovative and open-minded coaches in world rugby; an approach that has afforded him and the teams he coaches with numerous championships. The Canterbury & Crusaders systems are behemoths, and no doubt Robertson benefitted from their established processes, but he also brought his unique people-centered approach to the fore. Each year at the Crusaders, the whole organisation from Robertson down buys into a unique theme that gives the organisation a collective vision. In an interview for 1014 rugby Robertson tells the story of the 2017 season where their theme paralleled the unheralded but ultimately successful return to boxing of Muhammad Ali culminating his victory against much-vaunted opponent George Forman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’. It had been 9 years since the last Crusaders title when Robertson took over, but their 17’ crown would be won in Johannesburg, in the ‘jungle’.
The Drua & Moana Pasifika are the first Super Rugby teams created with a central theme at their core that goes beyond rugby. Pan-pacific and Fijian culture sits at the heart of these two teams. Both teams in their own way draw on the storied navigational exploits of their peoples across the Pacific. Early Polynesian explorers were the most profound sailors in all of human history. All the early indications from coaches and players are that a core early focus is to ensure these cultural themes are implemented well.
Moana Pasifika head coach, former All Black Aaron Mauger said to Radio New Zealand right now their focus is on trying to bring them together as a Moana aiga (family) first. “We are more than a Super Rugby team — we are a movement. We exist to empower Pasifika people through sport, social and economic action, and culture. We are the Ocean, it is the Ocean that binds us.”
The Drua draw on similar themes with the Drua being the biggest object in Fijian history, a canoe, that brought the Fijian people to Fiji 3,500 years ago. These two Pacific teams have a rich heritage to draw from, something other teams have begun to embrace for themselves, particularly in Super Rugby Aupiki. They have the talent, they have a rich and storied cultural connection to draw on to guide the vision of their teams, but they are newcomers to the highest intensity club rugby competition on the planet. If the success of the Crusaders is anything to go by, then if these two teams can establish world-class systems around their teams, then they will go a long way, a challenge they know they are ready for, as their ancestors already navigated the Pacific Ocean to bring them where they are today.