Samoa ace Mike Umaga looks back over the years
FORMER SAMOA AND ROTHERHAM BACK AND DoR AT BISHOP BURTON COLLEGE
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