The New Zealand Herald
Tokyo game crucial for Umaga
No one at the Blues will be underestimating the importance of their next match, against the Sunwolves in Tokyo, because a loss to Super Rugby’s worst team will make it difficult for the franchise’s board to justify the retention of Tana Umaga as head coach.
Which is not to say that Umaga will or should lose his job were the Blues to repeat their worst performance of 2017 with another defeat at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium on Saturday — just that a renewal of Umaga’s contract will be a difficult sell.
The preference of the Blues’ hierarchy before the season kicked off was obviously to add another couple of years to Umaga’s contract. The former All Blacks captain had made progress in his first two years at the under-performing franchise — taking them to 11th of 18 teams in his first season and ninth in his second. Umaga will have made plans for himself and the Blues beyond this year, the third and final of his current deal, and players are likely to have been told unofficially that the 44-year-old will be staying.
The wisest course of action might have been to announce his contract renewal before a ball had been kicked, or even after the Blues’ extraordinary fightback against the Lions in Johannesburg four weeks ago, a 38-35 win sealed in the final seconds when the visitors took the lead for the first time.
With only one victory from six matches, and a table position of 14th out of 15, the Blues’ season appears to be in tatters, their playoff hopes gone before the competition’s halfway mark.
Umaga’s defenders will say that he hasn’t become a bad coach over the past three months, and I agree. It’s the inconsistency which hurts the team on the field and their supporters off it, and it’s difficult to see how a new coach next year will help with that, even should the Blues find someone suitably qualified at this stage.
They showed admirable grit and determination to fight back from a poor start against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday to lead from the 36th minute to the 74th, but their inability to launch a single attacking foray into enemy territory in the second half cost them dearly.
Leaking 63 points at home to the Sharks isn’t okay, and nor was their effort in losing 37-20 to the Stormers in Cape Town a week after their triumph over the Lions.
Losing to a re-arranged Chiefs team who lost lock Brodie Retallick and fullback Shaun Stevenson before kickoff at Eden Park in round two was also negligent.
The likelihood is that Umaga will stay, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing. The knowledge Umaga has gained while with the franchise shouldn’t be thrown out.
He has the ear of his players, and they are mostly letting him down; do so again in Tokyo on Saturday and the situation will be difficult for everyone connected to the franchise.