No quick fix for Moana Pasifika, but CEO confident of better days ahead

Photo: Moana Pasifika

How did the season go for Moana Pasifika? Well, they lost their first 13 games, ahead of Saturday night’s win against the Waratahs, have had poor crowds, their coach Aaron Mauger is leaving early and best player Levi Aumua is jumping ship. You don’t need Picasso to paint a picture of what it’s been like.

At first glance it does look like Moana Pasifika are a club in crisis, but dig a little deeper and it’s possible to see the future could be bright for them.

The first mistake anyone can make when judging Moana Pasifika is to compare them to the others in the competition.

Not only did they have to deal with setting everything up from scratch, but also have to deliver on their mission to empower Pasifika people and culture. The Crusaders, Waratahs or Hurricanes don’t have to worry about anything like that and it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Moana Pasifika have struggled.

Moana Pasifika’s CEO Pelenato Sakalia says there are positives to take out of this season and he believes the team and organisation is building.

“You’ve got to put in place the fundamentals to be a professional sports team, there has been some huge progress made, and I want to acknowledge what Aaron has done in those areas,” Sakalia said.

Aaron Mauger exercised a clause in his contract that enabled him to leave Moana Pasifika after two years in the job.

“There have been some significant shifts in the individual players. Initially, it was a very inexperienced squad, with a number of new entrants into Super Rugby and a professional setting.

“We always believed it was going to take three to four years to make a meaningful impact on the field and I genuinely believe we’re on track for that.”

However, let’s look at some of the main talking points around Moana Pasifika, with the first being the woefully small crowds at Mt Smart Stadium this season, which at times looked to be sub-1000.

Sakalia says viewership numbers on Sky have been good compared to other teams. He acknowledges he’d like more people to come to games, but says the club’s supporter base has been hit the hardest by the cost of living crisis and anyway, it’s broadcasting money that’s more significant.

Hear the drama on and off the field. Newsable…sports worth talking about.

“We’ve developed a new fan base and the evidence of that is our social media,” he said.

“Pasifika are ferocious followers of social media. There’s no cost to being an online follower, but there is a cost for families to come along to Mt Smart, with the tickets and food.

“Our fanbase is predominantly Pacific and from South and West Auckland and there’s a lot of evidence around that Pacific Islanders were most severely impacted by Covid and the cost of living crisis and wouldn’t get change out of $100 to bring a family along.

“You can look at the stands and it’s been disappointing,” he added.

Moana Pasifika’s best player Levi Aumua is heading to the Crusaders next season.

“But it doesn’t take much to understand some of the key reasons for that.

“We would love to be making more from our game takings, but we are sympathetic to the situation of our people.

“You can only bring the ticket pricing down so far, we’re already rock bottom compared to everyone else.”

Moana Pasifika has 48,000 followers on Instagram. That compares with 234,000 for the Chiefs and 143,000 at the Highlanders.

Again, the newness is a factor, but the Warriors attract fans from similar communities to Moana Pasifika and they’ve been packing out Mt Smart Stadium this year.

Having big numbers on social media is important these days, but monetising that is the key issue for the team. You can’t pay bills with likes.

There were media reports about players inside the Moana Pasifika being unhappy at how things were being run this came out in a review.

Stuff understands this review was one of a number held over the season, to measure how things were tracking and if changes needed to be made.

The negativity from the review didn’t come as a surprise to those inside Moana Pasifika’s management team. After all, if everyone was happy after losing 13 games in a row, that would probably be more of a concern.

Some players were unhappy at not being selected, but it shouldn’t require a reminder that Moana Pasifika aren’t a social team. Some players had never been in a high performance environment before and didn’t grasp that the standards they’re expected to be at.

There has been speculation that Mauger left Moana Pasifika so he could apply for one of the other Super Rugby jobs becoming available for next year. But that’s not the case, the reality is Mauger doesn’t have anything lined up.

Stuff understands that before accepting the offer as head coach for three years, the club and Mauger agreed to an out clause for both parties at the end of each season.

After two years away from his family, Mauger decided he was unable to keep making that sacrifice so exercised the clause to leave at the end of this season.

Mauger never lost faith in what Moana Pasifika were trying to achieve and there doesn’t appear to be any bad feeling between him, the team or the front office.

He cared passionately about Moana Pasifika and tried to build within it resilience.

After two years with almost the same squad, there will likely be some turnover for next season and this will be key for the team’s future success.

If they want to be a playoff team, they can only do so much with fringe NPC players. They need to create their own pathways, to nurture and bring through talent.

Right now, playing for Moana Pasifika would probably third on the list for an aspiring young footy player with Pacific Island heritage, behind signing for one of the other New Zealand based Super Rugby teams (with the hope of making it into the All Blacks), or joining an NRL club.

The world of recruitment is a cut-throat one, but it appears to be a game Sakalia doesn’t want Moana Pasifika to play.

“I think that’s the wrong mindset, to try to persuade them,” he said.

“You’ve got to earn their trust and the best way you do that is by engaging at the grassroots level.

“Often in the high performance drive to attract talent you lose sight of the most important thing people look for at grassroots and that’s engagement. Not one off engagement, like coming in to scout around for talent, but meaningful engagement and that you’re there for them.

“We have a belief that our success in the medium to long term is entirely dependent on how we engage with our people at the grassroots.

“We are about providing pathways for our people, our communities. Yes, we’re a sporting franchise, but we will celebrate success where people don’t fall between the cracks, but ultimately find themselves on a pathway to prosperity.”

Time will tell if this approach is successful, but it may not be enough to stop NZ Super Rugby and NRL clubs snapping up talent from under the nose of Moana Pasifika.

Whatever spin Moana Pasifika try to put on it, with chairman Michael Jones saying he was proud they had played a pivotal role in shaping Aumua’s career, his departure was an appalling look for the team.

Moana Pasifika aren’t supposed to be a feeder club for the Crusaders and All Blacks. Spectators want to see stars play for their team and they want to see them win.

Aumua was one of Moana Pasifika’s best players and his departure not only impacts the team’s ability to win, it sets a bad precedent for other players to be picked off by Super Rugby teams.

Moana Pasifika can survive in Super Rugby and have success, but judging them by what’s happened over the last two seasons too soon. They have some significant hurdles to overcome, particularly around recruitment, finance and crowds, but there is a future for this team. It’s just that this journey could take a while.

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