Samoa ace Mike Umaga looks back over the years


The Rugby Paper - - News - MIKE UMAGA

BE­ING booed by 60odd thou­sand South Africans in­side El­lis Park in Jo­han­nes­burg was quite an ex­pe­ri­ence to say the least. We (Samoa) were play­ing the Spring­boks in the 1995 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal and ten­sions were high be­cause of the stakes in­volved.

Look­ing back at the tape of the match now, I don’t think the tack­les were that bad at all, even by to­day’s stan­dards. Even so, I re­mem­ber cop­ping a fair bit of abuse from fans in the car park af­ter­wards.

We knew we’d strug­gle in the tight five through­out the World Cup, but we went into ev­ery game with­out any fear re­gard­less of the op­po­si­tion. We did it tough by beat­ing Italy and Ar­gentina in the space of just three days. Un­for­tu­nately we lost our fly-half, Dar­ren Kel­lett, for the fi­nal pool game with Eng­land and young Esera Puleitu was thrown in at the deep end. By half-time, we were 21-0 down but we ral­lied well in the sec­ond half to fin­ish 44-22.

I didn’t think any­one was go­ing to win the tour­na­ment other than South Africa. That World Cup kicked a lot of things off for me and where I am now. Af­ter the tour­na­ment I had dis­cus­sions with Welling­ton about sign­ing a con­tract for the new Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion, while John Schus­ter, the brother of Samoa’s coach, was at Hal­i­fax RL and wanted me to join him over there. I’d al­ways en­joyed my­self on tours of Eng­land in the past, so I de­cided to give it a go.

Nearly a quar­ter of a cen­tury later, me and my lovely wife Michelle and kids are still in the UK. I found the tran­si­tion to league fairly easy, but it didn’t seem to have the same post-play­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and that’s the main rea­son why I switched back codes.

When­ever I wasn’t play­ing for Hal­i­fax, I’d be down at Rother­ham watch­ing my mate, Des Tuiavi’I, so they seemed to be the ob­vi­ous fit. Whilst at Rother­ham I won eight more caps for Samoa, to bring my to­tal to 13, in­clud­ing a run out against my brother Tana for the All Blacks. It was cer­tainly an in­ter­est­ing day. The big thing I re­mem­ber is him walk­ing straight past me in the tun­nel with­out ut­ter­ing a word; he was in the mo­ment.

I loved it at Rother­ham even though we had some tough times. Just get­ting to the Pre­mier­ship, not once but twice, was an amaz­ing feat in it­self. Beat­ing Per­pig­nan, in Per­pig­nan, was an­other huge achieve­ment es­pe­cially as the jour­ney to get there was an or­deal.

Rother­ham’s owner Mike Yar­lett, who is still a good friend of mine, told me that the sec­ond sea­son in the Pre­mier­ship (2003/04) would be his last af­ter our fi­nal game against New­cas­tle. I thanked him for ev­ery­thing he’d done and was pretty sure in my own mind that that would be it for me too.

Coach­ing is a cut-throat busi­ness and I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced both the rough and the smooth at var­i­ous clubs in the mid­lands. Coven­try, when An­drew Green was owner, was one I hope will never to be re­peated, but it is great to see the club back on its feet and do­ing so well.

Rather than ex­ist in a purely re­sults-driven en­vi­ron­ment, my cur­rent role of DoR at Bishop Bur­ton Col­lege al­lows me to build some­thing. Quite a few of the young play­ers I’ve worked with have left to be­come pro­fes­sion­als: Lau­rence Pearce, Jarad Wil­liams, Morgan Eames, James Thraves and, most re­cently, George Thorn­ton has gone to Wasps.

My role as a di­rec­tor of pa­cific rugby play­ers’ wel­fare (PRPW) keeps me busy too. When I first ar­rived in the UK Poly­ne­sian play­ers were of­ten left to stand on their own feet, and there was very lit­tle sup­port. The PRPW strives to of­fer over­seas play­ers and their fam­i­lies a sup­port net­work as well as help­ing man­age the tran­si­tion into ‘nor­mal’ work­ing life af­ter play­ing. – as told to Jon Newcombe

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