Super Rugby Pacific: Moana Pasifika's identity under Tana Umaga already showing despite defeat to Highlanders

Even in a heartbreaking 35-21 loss to the Highlanders at Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium, Moana Pasifika have already proven they're going to be a different prospect entirely in 2024.  

With a record of three wins from 28 games since their introduction into the competition two years ago, Moana Pasifika are yet to experience the success they'd have hoped for in Super Rugby.  

But under new coach Tana Umaga, their start to the season already looks like things have improved.  

For the majority of Saturday night's season opener, Moana Pasifika matched the Highlanders blow for blow, including taking an 18-14 lead at halftime.

Tana Umaga.
Tana Umaga. Photo credit: Getty Images

Instead, it wasn't until the final 10 minutes - and a contender for try of the season - that the home side would have felt they were safe.  

What's more, Moana Pasifika have entered 2024 having lost two of their most consistent performers from the last two years, after Levi Aumua and Timoci Tavatavanawai moved to the Crusaders and Highlanders respectively.  

However, while their first display of the season was a marked improvement on what's come before, Umaga knows there is still plenty to work on.  

"We're proud of the effort," he said. "I don't think anyone would have thought that halftime score would have been what it was, leading into the game.  

"We've just got to bank more minutes and more moments together.  

"It's only natural that our boys will be down. They're very proud of who they represent, and so they should be, in terms of Moana Pasifika but also their families, the names that we wear that mean so much to us.  

"But they've got to learn that this is professional sport. You can only be down for a couple of hours.  

"Then we have to get back, look at the positives, where we need to get better, and work on those things for the next seven days."  

What was clear on Saturday, though, was the clear improvement in the fitness of the Moana Pasifika sides.  

It wasn't until the final 10 minutes that the Highlanders were able to seal their first win of the season.  

In 2023, under former coach Aaron Mauger, Moana Pasifika conceded 40 points or more on nine occasions – including a 71-22 loss to the Hurricanes.   

While there's no denying the skill level of Moana Pasifika's squad, switching off late in games was a key issue that the former All Blacks captain knew he had to correct.   

"It's obviously an area that we saw last year that we knew we had to rectify," he added.  

"You can't play at this level and compete for 30-40 minutes. We probably still fell off a cliff at the end there. We can get better at that.  

"We know we've got to get better at that, and we will. It's just [about] working.  

"They've worked so hard over the pre-season, they've done everything we've asked without questioning. Our backroom staff, S&C coaches have done a great job.  

"We've had a really well-planned pre-season. We have to make sure all those plans are still driving us to execute in the weekend."