How Moana Pasifika, Fijian Drua have devised and built their Super Rugby expansion franchises

Lennox Head, a sleepy coastal town on the New South Wales far north coast, is a far cry from the bright lights of big cities that usually house professional sporting teams, but it's here that the masterplan for one of the newest Super Rugby powerhouses is being devised.

With just four months until the opening match of Super Rugby Pacific, Moana Pasifika, one of two new franchises in the competition alongside Fijian Drua, and coaches Aaron Mauger and Drua chief Mick Byrne are both still rushing to finalise squad lists, confirm training facilities and start preseason training.

Building an expansion team from the ground up was never going to be easy, with time constraints and COVID-19 presenting plenty of challenges to overcome, but as their rosters for the new boys begin to come together, excitement is building.

Speaking to ESPN while inspecting facilities in Lennox Head, where Drua arrived last week and will now be based throughout their preseason, Byrne spoke of the difficulty of building a roster on such a short turn around.

"I was very lucky before I came on board, while I was going through the interview process, one of the first questions I asked was about the roster. I knew [General Manager of High Performance] Simon Raiwalui, who was the old Wallabies assistant coach, was putting together a list of players we wanted," Byrne said.

Headlining the list were several Fijian internationals including Mesulame Dolokoto, Manasa Saulo and Samuela Tawake. Saulo alone brings 47 Test caps worth of experience to the squad as well as experience in top-level competitions in France for Toulon and the UK with London Irish. They've also bolstered their squad with signings from their gold medal winning Sevens program with the likes of Kalione Nasoko joining the franchise.

Despite the impressive signatures, there were still many they weren't able to capture.

"There was a lot of toing and froing between Rugby Australia and New Zealand Rugby to confirm our team and in that time Simon missed out on about eight to nine players, I think, maybe even 10 that he was talking to. We were competing in that June-July window, that's when they're signing overseas.

"But having said that, we've got a really good group of players that have come together. Simon kept an eye on a lot of good players and we've got a good group together. After I came on we discussed what we needed and what we wanted and we've ended up with a really exciting list of players, a good mix of experience and some really good young guys that are coming off the islands.

"There's been a lot of hard yards done, putting a team on the field in a short period of time like that is a challenge, but it's exciting because every day there's plenty to do."

Despite facing similar challenges, Pasifika have managed to build an exciting roster of their own. With the signings of former Test players Sekope Kepu, Christian Leali'ifano and Jack Lam, Mauger has created a squad rich with experience as well as exciting youth from New Zealand's NPC, which the Pasifika coach says is all key to the team's development.

"Part of our strategy was obviously looking at what we needed across the board, so one of the first big rocks for us was experience, having some experienced campaigners in there and we're really happy with those older heads in our group," Mauger told ESPN.

"These three guys with their experience, their wisdom and guidance will be massive in really shaping our program, so we'll have a lot of young exciting guys sitting around that. We feel like we've got a really good mix in terms of our squad, we have a big focus on our spine of our team; game drivers, decision makers and I'm really happy there as well and I feel like we're pretty well placed."

According to Byrne, Drua chose to go a different direction, selecting much of their young talent from Fiji, honouring a commitment to build within the islands.

"Part of the process was to be a pathway for young Fijian players to play for the national team so you know, we have to honour that and it's great because what we're able to do is create that opportunity now for young players on the island that are there, playing for clubs and schools, and see there's a step to professional rugby now with Drua.

"We want them to think 'we'll go through club and then once I'm playing for the Drua the next step is for the national team'. They don't actually have to go offshore; they could pursue their dream at home.

"We've had a few players come to us and let us know that they'd be really keen to play, players from Samoa and Tonga and from all around the world and we're being very respectful in saying that one of our key drivers at the initial stages was to create an opportunity for us to be a pathway for young Fijian players and they've respected that."

But cultivating a roster isn't as easy as simply selecting the most talented athletes from around the Pacific nations and the world and signing them to a contract. The situation is much more complex.

"The first thing was to look at how we want to shape our squad and then understanding the environment we're going into," Mauger told ESPN.

"We've done a lot of analyzing the game of Super Rugby over the last couple of years; what's been successful, looking at the key trends, stripping out the stats of the sides that were, how they played and then matching that up with our strengths, how I think that we will play, create our own style, our own flavour which is Pasifika which is really important to us.

"We don't want to be another New Zealand team or an Australian team, we'll take all the things we can learn from those teams and wrap that up into our own special characteristics; obviously around our power, our speed some flair.

"Then when we sign players there's normally lots of conversations with agents, then coaches trawling through footage getting reference checks, character checks on players, making decisions around whether that person is the right fit for our environment, whether the players' attributes are the right fit for how we want to play and then we decide that it's worth exploring a bit further.

"It can take up to, 20-30 hours of work for one player I suppose before you're making those decisions. But it's important that we get that part right, it's a pretty special purpose, and a pretty special journey that we're on so we want to make sure people are here for the right reasons and our job is to make sure that when they do come in they feel like it's the place for them, it feels like their home, it's the place where they feel like they belong and they can go out there and really express themselves.

"We want people to be fearless, we want people to go out and express themselves and have the courage to do that and that's simply the environment we want to create."

Creating a strong roster is just one of the building blocks for these expansion teams, with a large focus also on developing the right culture. While defining what that culture is may seem intangible, it's also viewed as one of the most important aspects of success and for Drua and Pasifika, both encapsulating rich rugby heritage, striking the right balance will be key.

"For us it's like two worlds coming together," Mauger told ESPN. "It's all the beauty that's wrapped up in our history and our culture and the people that really carved the path for us, and then it's understanding how we fuse that into a high performance rugby environment, which is pretty demanding, pretty brutal, and is pretty cut throat, but we want to get that right.

"We're fortunate we've got a lot of people who have had experience at international level and Super Rugby, so they understand those demands and we're really fortunate those people are Pasifika as well. We understand how we bring that together and make sure we can create an awesome environment and a successful one.

"We're really lucky to be a part of this, it's a real privilege to be a part of that journey and help bring Moana Pasifika to life. Not just for the team now and the community now, it's for all the people who have gone before us."

For Drua and Byrne, the pressure is already on for the team to find success in 2022. Claiming the National Rugby Championship in 2018, the Drua now have their sights on reaching the finals in their first year in Super Rugby Pacific.

"It's both a privilege and a challenge [building a new team]. It's a great opportunity to build, work with the playing group, work with the management group to build our culture and set up the pathway for the future growth of young players coming through Fiji," Byrne said.

"But with that is the expectation and challenge to get it right because as I've been told a number of times you get one chance to get it right. Obviously, we get one chance to do it right the first time, and we're going to make every effort to engage people from the minute we start. Engaging our players and our culture piece and how we operate as a team on and off the field will be an opportunity to set up a future for the Drua that we would like to see that just keeps getting better and better every year."