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.”