The entry of the Pacific franchises into the Super Rugby ecosystem generated a lot of expectations in the field of sports and in business…
Eroni Clarke was Buzz Lightyear in black: a barrel-chested, block-busting outside-centre who played 24 Tests for the All Blacks, 150 games for Auckland and 51 games for the Blues.
Today he is employed by New Zealand Rugby as a Pasifika Engagement Officer. And on Saturday afternoon at Mt Smart Stadium, sitting alongside fellow Pasifika royalty Michael Jones and Bryan Williams, Clarke would’ve been well entertained by a battle of two 13s.
In the blue corner, Moana’s Levi Aumua, who multiple times stormed into the Waratahs’ line, carried a few with him and scored a fine try. He effectively did the same thing in defence; a crunching, hard-shouldered presence.
In the other blue corner, Waratahs 13 Izaia Perese was a constant, storming menace and his team’s best. Fine lines, hard angles at speed. He also scored a try, broke the line at will, and should’ve setup the try of the match when on the halfway he grubbered between big men, regathered on the fly, beat the fullback, and unloaded for his winger Dylan Pietsch who went over.
Yet the TMO found a foot in touch two phases and 150 metres across and down the field ago. The result was a Waratahs throw into the lineout. And the gods of rugby wept.
Ultimately, though, they and the sparse crowd were entertained by a physical and fast-moving match won by NSW 26-20.
“It was a really tough game,” Waratahs captain Jake Gordon told Stan Sport after the match.
“Moana came out of the blocks really well, which we knew they would in front of their home crowd.
“They were putting a lot of heat on at the breakdown.
“It’s always nice to win over here,” Gordon added, surprised when told it was the first time since 2015 the Tahs had come to New Zealand and claimed the points.
Moana captain Sekope Kepu was proud of his team but lamented a pass going down at the death when they were storming the Tahs’ line.
“We had our chances but weren’t able to capitalise. But congratulations to the Waratahs. They showed tonight as they showed last week against the Crusaders, they’re a quality side,” Kefu said.
The game went NSW’s way when Mark Nawaqanitawase scored in the 55th minute following a mighty, left to right torpedo pass from Gordon. It was Moana by one but the Tahs were riding momentum.
Soon enough they did score the try of the match: multiple hands, both sides of the field, long runs, ball movement wide and short, was a majestic bit of teamwork, Barbarians-esque. Thankfully TV officials didn’t go back for a possible forward pass or two. And the gods – still mad – were mollified.
Then the Moana brains trust took Aumua off with 15 minutes to go; they were confused with the rest of us. Because he did appear their man most likely.
Ten minutes in Christian Lealifano landed first blood with a penalty goal. In the 46th minute he landed a penalty goal for his 1000th point to become Super Rugby’s seventh all time point-scorer behind a storied sextet of Daniel Carter, Morné Steyn, Beauden Barrett, Elton Jantjies, Bernard Foley and Stirling Mortlock.
Moana were strong early. Big bodies ran at the line. Subtle footwork. Offloads shelved – but they were in the post. The energy had potential.
After an amazing pick-up off his toes by hooker Ray Niula following a wayward lineout throw (that he didn’t throw), Moana attacked, all hard angles, strong lines, winger Timoci Tavatavanawai a factor. Then another man who wouldn’t normally pull off any party tricks, prop Abraham Pole plunged over for the try.
The Waratahs hit back. And were penalised. Angus Bell, holding on. Didn’t have a lot of time to release it. But Moana’s defensive rucking was sharp.
As was their attack. A multi-ruck movement, those same big bodies crashed the ball hard into the meat of the Waratahs line, with Aumua carrying men with him. Kefu played five-eighth and hit Aumua who crashed in, and it was here the journo jotted down the name “Eroni Clark”.
The Waratahs attacked, their pet play to the left with both wingers in play. One of them, Nawaqanitawase was bent in two by an Aumua rib-buster. Further industry won a penalty. The scrum won another one. And then a try – Perese ran a fast and weaving line off a Gordon pass.
Amonra, meanwhile, kept on hitting Nawaqanitawase. Perese hit another hole, went 30m, weaving, he turned fullback Danny Toala three times.
And the Clarke angle was sealed.
The Tahs bombed in. Dave Porecki combined with Gordon. Charlie Gamble rumbled in. Porecki came again to score that very front-rower’s try, the two-metre, low-down pick-n-drive.
And at half-time it was Moana Pasifika 17 leading NSW Waratahs 14.
Former Māori All Blacks player Joe Wheeler described the first half as “hectic”.
“I thought it was a bit of a sloppy start by both teams. But Moana nailed their opportunities whenever they got a chance,” Wheeler said.
“The Waratahs on the flipside looked like they were still on the play, still at the Coogee Bay Hotel celebrating last week’s win. They’ll be getting a rocket I imagine in the sheds.
“They finished well, though.
As did Moana in the second half, coming hard at the visitors. Yet the Waratahs held firm and won a courageous victory over opponents building in quality each week.