Tana Umaga

CAPS 74

NZ Rugby World - - Outside Influences -

There prob­a­bly hasn’t been a bet­ter de­fen­sive mid­fielder in the world game than Tana Umaga. He wasn’t so bad with the ball in hand ei­ther and Umaga gave what­ever team he played in gen­uine phys­i­cal pres­ence.

He was the size of a loose for­ward and played with the same sort of col­li­sion in­ten­sity. He loved the con­tact zones but he was far from ex­clu­sively di­rect – he had sub­tle skills, great vi­sion and dis­tri­bu­tion and was just as happy run­ning round de­fend­ers as he was through them.

But for all that he was a great player, had a ma­jor in­flu­ence in many tests, his big­gest im­pact was to change per­cep­tions in New Zealand rugby.

In 2004 Umaga be­came the first cap­tain of the All Blacks from a Poly­ne­sian back­ground.

There had, of course, been many play­ers of Pa­cific Is­land de­scent picked for the All Blacks over the years but none had ever been asked to cap­tain the side.

As the ex­cel­lent writer Paul Thomas said of Umaga’s el­e­va­tion to the role “[His] Ac­ces­sion to the All Blacks cap­taincy in 2004 was an­other sym­bol of the su­per­sed­ing of the old New Zealand – ru­ral, tac­i­turn, self-e ac­ing, Pakeha – by the new – ur­ban, self-ex­pres­sive, flam­boy­ant, multicultural. But Umaga’s suc­cess as a cap­tain and abil­ity to gal­vanise the pub­lic be­hind the All Blacks lay in his abil­ity to bridge this di­vide.

“Ap­pear­ances aside, he pos­sessed the qual­i­ties and at­tributes that New Zealan­ders have as­so­ci­ated with the All Blacks for 100 years – sto­icism, phys­i­cal and men­tal tough­ness, ruth­less­ness in pur­suit of vic­tory, gra­cious­ness when vic­tory has been achieved.”

Umaga not only dis­pelled a few stereo­types, he brought gen­uine men­tal edge and sig­nif­i­cant change to the All Blacks.

He was heav­ily in­volved in the tran­si­tion from a coach­in­gled lead­er­ship model to a player-led cul­ture. He was a big driver in im­prov­ing per­sonal stan­dards and kick­ing out many of the old tra­di­tions that were hold­ing the All Blacks back.

Umaga was, in short, a big in­flu­ence in driv­ing higher lev­els of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and de­mand­ing his peers work harder and smarter.

Un­der his cap­taincy play­ers knew where they stood as did the coach­ing sta . Henry would say of that 2004-2005 pe­riod, which was also his first two years at the helm, “I came to un­der­stand that they [play­ers of Poly­ne­sian de­scent] were very re­spect­ful peo­ple and of­ten that re­spect­ful­ness stopped them say­ing things that per­haps they should say.

“Tana, how­ever, was quite black and white on many things and made his opin­ion very clear. He didn’t pussy­foot around, he was pretty bold in his lead­er­ship, and he made state­ments which were all about stan­dards. If he be­lieved in some­thing, he stood up and was very clear. There was no am­bi­gu­ity.”

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