Moana Pasifika have shown they belong with a tight loss against 12-time champions the Crusaders in their belated Super Rugby Pacific debut.

The new outfit scored a wonderful long-range try to lead at Dunedin's empty Forsyth Barr Stadium and then found the line in the 70th minute to trail by just 21-12.

They eventually lost 33-12, but proved their entry, alongside Fijian Drua, was more than justified with some bruising defence and slick ball movement against the powerhouse side.

In a special touch, the teams formed a circle in the middle of the field post-match to sing and share a moment's silence.

"It was a historical day," Pasifika captain Sekope Kepu said.

"Pretty surreal ... 26 years they've been talking about it (having a Pacifika Super Rugby team).

"It was about trusting ourselves and backing each other and the boys showed a lot of courage, lot of passion.

"We can take a lot of confidence out of that (because) they've set the bar for years."

Their effort came after Pasifika's first two rounds were postponed due to COVID-19 cases in camp.

They only played one preseason game and will remain based in New Zealand this season while family and friends cope with aftermath of the Tongan volcano eruption and tsunami.

But, boasting 11 Super Rugby debutants, they made light of that adversity to scare the Crusaders, No.10 Lincoln McClutchie sharp and No.8 Henry Time-Stowers a powerful backrow presence.

Most-capped Wallabies prop Kepu powered the scrum and his men turned the Crusaders away, strong defence creating three turnovers as they jumped to a surprise lead through Solomone Funaki.

Lock Mitchell Dunshea notched a rare try while sitting on the wing before Ethan Blackadder created a gap to make it 14-5.

Codie Taylor scored after the break but the floodgates didn't open, Pasifika instead dominating field position and peppering the line.

The try eventually came after the injection of another former Wallaby, Christian Lealiifano, the playmaker jumping on a loose ball and Fine Inisi scoring.

Abraham Pole burrowed over for an immediate reply before Taylor's second five-pointer with the game's final play scored the Crusaders a crucial bonus point.

Relieved coach Scott Robertson said their poor execution early in the game had given Pasifika a look-in they took advantage of.

"It was real, real tough," he said.

"We couldn't quite execute, a lot of credit to the effort, courage and heart.

"We're really proud as Crusaders to play this game; it's pretty special, amazing to be a part of."

Moana Pasifika 12 (Tries: Solomone Funaki, Fine Inisi Con: Lincoln McClutchie) Crusaders 33 (Tries: Codie Taylor 2, Mitchell Dunshea, Abraham Pole, Ethan Blackadder Cons: Simon Hickey 3, Richie Mo’unga 1)

MOANA PASIFIKA: 15: William Havili 14: Time Fainga’anuku 13: Levi Aumua 12: Danny Toala 11: Neria Fomai 10: Lincoln McClutchie 9: Ere Enari 8: Henry Stowers 7: Almanda Motuga 6: Solomone Funaki 5: Samuel Slade 4: Mike McKee 3: Sekope Kepu 2: Luteru Tolai 1: Ezekiel Lindenmuth

Replacements: Samiuela Moli, Tau Kolomatangi, Joe Apikotoa, Alex McRobbie, Jack Lam, Jonathan Taumateine, Christian Lealiifano, Fine Inisi

CRUSADERS: 15 Chay Fihaki, 14 George Bridge, 13 Isaiah Punivai, 12 Dallas McLeod, 11 Kini Naholo, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi 8 Pablo Matera, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Quinten Strange, 4 Mitchell Dunshea, 3 Fletcher Newell, 2 Brodie McAlister, 1 George Bower.

Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Tamaiti Williams, 18 Abraham Pole, 19 Dom Gardiner, 20 Corey Kellow, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Kaveinga Finau