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From reluctant coach to inspiring leader

Monday 4 July 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Rugby Union, Sports

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From reluctant coach to inspiring leader
Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger: ‘I’m one of those guys if I’m in, I’m in. I’m in for my family, my own heritage.’ HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES/22070106

The funny thing is Aaron Mauger never considered himself the right man to lead Moana Pasifika on their version of Mission Impossible.

He understood the vision, got the significance, and was even happy to be part of the process, but he just didn’t see himself as the right man calling the shots in the waka as this gritty little team paddled against the tide.

How wrong he was. Not only was this born-and-bred Kiwi with the Cook Islands bloodlines (and a little bit of Samoa thrown in) the right man, he was quite possibly the only man to take on the job of inaugural head coach of Moana Pasifika in Super Rugby Pacific.

It was never going to be a walk in the park. The late approval timeline, infrastructure shortcomings, system inequities, the cruel Covid-19 world, finite pool of rugby talent in New Zealand, the growing pains … you name it, Moana Pasifika was always going to be up against it in year one.

But it didn’t matter. Pacific Islands rugby had waited a quarter of a century to be given a seat at the table, and not just the crumbs dropped when the establishment have had their fill. Tough was nothing these people couldn’t handle.

And Mauger, eventually, was the perfect choice as head coach. It needed somebody with vision, drive, smarts and a little bit of mongrel. Also someone capable of inspiring a group of men who would likely need it, and unifying them under a banner that had yet to establish its chops in the professional game. Most importantly, it needed someone who really cared.

The 41-year-old 46-test All Black was part of the steering committee putting the inaugural Moana Pasifika group together and, like everyone, knew the head coach had to have the bloodlines (by Pasifika, for Pasifika is the unofficial motto of this team). He just never figured it would be him.

He and wife Amy have four children – Felix, 17, Zoe, 15, Ivy, 10, and Hugo, 9 – and moving them from Dunedin (their current base) to Auckland was not part of the plan. So Mauger, who had coached the Highlanders from 2018-20, suggested helping out on a part-time basis. “I didn’t want to be head coach, away from my family, full noise … but I got collared by Beegee (Sir Bryan Williams) and Michael (Sir Michael Jones) at Eden Park in the Barbarians lounge, and all of a sudden we were talking about a vision as head coach …”

The rest, as they say, is history. Mauger’s sense of duty, of belief won the day and he committed to the job. It is not, he assures me one morning in the midst of a busy post-season debrief, a long-term thing. The plan is to go maybe another year, and then pass the reins on. The family intends to move back to Christchurch. He doesn’t want to be a part-time dad on a full-time basis.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he says of a process in permanent fast-forward. “It’s been busy, chaotic, but really rewarding. I’m one of those guys if I’m in, I’m in. I’m in for my family, my own heritage, I understand the journey, I’m committed to inspiring a pathway for Pasifika in rugby. My heart is in it.”

In assessing Moana’s debut season, you have to look beyond bare results which themselves were heartening. They had two victories, 24-19 over the Hurricanes and 32-22 over the Brumbies, and 12 defeats. Most losses fell into the “respectable” category and pretty much everyone they played walked off knowing they’d been in a contest.

Now consider Moana’s entry into Super Rugby was only confirmed in April of 2021. They had just months to recruit and sign 38 players and a coaching staff. In the midst of a pandemic. “We didn't have much standing us up,” notes Mauger. “We had a pretty fragile skeleton in place. Success for us was adding the flesh, and creating some structure that allowed us to build a performance each week.”

It’s why Mauger described the season-opening 33-12 defeat to the Crusaders as “a win”. “We shouldn’t have been competing with the Crusaders in our first game, and 70 minutes in we’re 8 points down. We’re up in the coaches’ box saying, ‘we’ve got a chance to beat the best team in Super Rugby history’ …”

Remember, Mauger had been fully prepared to go 0-14 in this inaugural year. That was his reality. “We beat two top-six teams this year. We pushed the Crusaders, the Blues … it makes me proud. Not only did we survive, we actually thrived in those challenging conditions. We’ve unearthed some real gems … a season to celebrate, really.”

Moana used 47 players in 2022, most new to this level. They had eight of 14 games in “storm” weeks (created by Covid postponements). They stopped, started, stopped again … were laid low by the virus, the ‘flu, by injury and sheer exhaustion (players were sleeping in the changing-room minutes before the Waratahs game).

“What does success look like?” reflects Mauger. “I go back to 47 debutants,150 games for Sekope (Kepu), milestones for Christian (Leali’ifano), our first try (Solomone Funaki against the Crusaders). I go back to pushing the best teams, beating some of them. I go back to the tears in our elder generations’ eyes when we took the field for the first time. I look at Filo Tiatia’s father who set up the Wellington Samoan rugby union back in the ‘70s, and the pride he has now we’re here. This means so much to so many people.”

And it’s only just getting started, assures Mauger. “There’s so much we can be proud of, but so much more to do. The challenge is retaining our players now. These guys, unknown five months ago, were some of the best performers in this competition. They will command top dollar around the world now … NRL clubs are already sniffing around a couple.”.

The good news is Mauger will have most of his squad back for ‘23, including, crucially, veterans Kepu and Leali’ifano. “Those guys bring mana. They're grounded men, their humility, their dignity, their desire to still be learning … they’re hugely influential in the growth and performance of our team.”

This is personal, in so many ways, for Mauger. It’s why he’s sacrificed so much, why he does the Dunedin-Auckland commute, why he works his fingers to the figurative bone. It all goes back to Nana, on his mum’s side, “one of the most special people you’d ever come across”.

Mauger’s Nana (his mother’s mother) was one of 15 children in her family, was adopted out to an auntie at the age of 4, and left Rarotonga at 19 to come to New Zealand to make a better life.

“Her courage, resilience, the way she created a belonging and real care for our family, she is pretty special,” he says, “I think about her journey. If you talk to our people through our bloodlines somebody has made that decision, been brave enough to say, ‘I think I can create a better way for our family’.

“We talk about courage a lot. We had to be courageous to attack our journey, understand who we are and back ourselves to take on these challenges. That’s my Nan. We don’t need to look too far outside our own people, our history, our culture, for inspiration.”

And now? Mauger’s eyes burn with the brightness of possibilities.

He expects the team to be 30-40% better with a full off-season to plan, a full pre-season to prepare, with upskilling taking place across the board.

“If a player turns up on day 1 and he’s not fit, he’ll be required to get himself fit before coming into camp. There’s a shift in mentality straight away, At the very minimum you turn up ready for your job. If you can’t, then someone else will.

“That’s where we have to go. The cultural and environmental stuff we put in this year will be there, but the edge around how we drive performance has got to be higher, Everyone has to raise the bar. We should be top-8 next year, so we’ve got to win nearly half our games.”

He never saw himself leading this journey. But boy is he doing so now.

  • Marc Hinton/Stuff