FILE - Australia's Christian Leali'ifano, center, runs away from New Zealand's Richie McCaw during their Bledisloe cup rugby match in Brisbane, Australia on Oct. 18, 2014. The long-awaited debut of Christian Leali'ifano's Moana Pasifika team in Super Rugby has been further delayed, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, by the postponement of the team's scheduled second round match on Sunday against the Chiefs. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard, File)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — After two false starts Moana Pasifika at last will make their Super Rugby debut on Friday matched against the benchmark team in the tournament, the 11-time champion Crusaders.

Moana Pasifika’s first appearance in Super Rugby Pacific has been twice delayed. Its opening-round match against the Blues was postponed because of a COVID outbreak among the tournament newcomers and its second-round match against the Chiefs was put back because the players’ release from isolation gave them too little time to prepare.

While the Fijian Drua have played twice in the Australian section of the tournament, the New Zealand section has lacked the Pacific flavor that Moana Pasifika is expected to provide.

After months of training and expectation, the young Moana Pasifika players, many of whom are new to Super Rugby, now get the chance to test themselves against the best team in the tournament. The Crusaders won Super Rugby Aotearoa last year and already are unbeaten in two matches this season.

Head coach Aaron Mauger said his task as he prepares his team for its debut involved “encouraging our younger guys first time up to back themselves.

“They’re here because we believe in them and they’re here because we trust them,” Mauger said. “That just builds the more time we have together out on the grass.

“We’ve only had one game to get that but we’ve had a lot of trainings now and the intensity’s starting to build. We’re pretty confident with where we’re at. We know it’s going to be a challenge but we’re looking forward to it.”

The Crusaders have the challenge of facing a team they haven’t seen before and which has little measurable form to assess. On paper Moana Pasifika have a strong front five and backline players who can produce the flair and style they wish to promote.

“I think you stick to your strengths and we know that Moana Pasifika strengths will be their power game,” Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson said.

“They’ve got players across the field that can rip you open. They’re probably looking to expressing themselves. They’ve got a lot to play for. We’ve got to respect them.”

The Fijian Drua also play Friday, against Melbourne Rebels as they still seek their first Super Rugby win. Later, the Western Force play the Queensland Reds in Perth, Western Australia.

On Saturday, the Auckland-based Blues play the Hamilton-based Chiefs, the Wellington-based Hurricanes play the Dunedin-based Highlanders and the Canberra-based ACT Brumbies host the New South Wales Waratahs. By STEVE McMORRAN AP Sports Writer

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