Rugby Union: Umaga minor can cope with game's major pressures

RUGBY WORLD CUP All Black wing has rediscovered qualities that launched him in Tests having put his international career into perspective
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The Independent Online
THE SPIRIT of the Umagas? If you think that sounds suspiciously like an episode from the Adventures of Tintin, think again; it has the firmest of footings in rugby reality and is not to be taken lightly. A little over four years ago, Mike Umaga personified the pride, the passion and the sheer physicality of Western Samoa's World Cup challenge by leaving small piles of Springbok wounded dotted across the Johannesburg cityscape in a quarter-final tie of mind-boggling intensity. He will be back on Sunday, our Mike, risking life and limb on behalf of the islanders as they open their 1999 account against Japan at Wrexham.

Yet, whatever he and his fellow Samoans achieve this time round, his heavily dreadlocked kid brother Tana is far more likely to be the talk of the tournament. It is one thing to leave South African whippets like Andre Joubert and Joost van der Westhuizen motionless on the Ellis Park greensward, as the elder Umaga did in 1995. It is quite another to go head to head with Jonah Lomu, who so famously doubled up as both unstoppable force and immovable object during that competition, and leave him every bit as motionless on the New Zealand bench.

Seven years Mike's junior at 26, Tana Umaga is the man who kept Jolly Jonah out of the New Zealand Test side and, by extension, out of everyone's nightmares throughout last summer's Tri-Nations tournament. Umaga plays down the Lomu factor - "I don't pick the side, I just play in it when I'm given the opportunity," he says bluntly, not so much sidestepping the issue as running straight through it - but it was no mean feat to hold at bay the most celebrated wing in rugby history. After all, it is rather more than 15 English yeomen managed on that painful semi-final day in Cape Town.

Having decided that blood is not necessarily thicker than water, Umaga minor pledged himself to New Zealand rugby rather than to his own Samoan ancestry and broke into the All Black side in 1997, making his debut against Fiji at Albany and scoring a hatful of tries until a loss of form last season cost him his place. He went quiet for a while, pondering over errors made and lessons learned, before switching on the gas for the Wellington Hurricanes in this year's Super 12. Then came a hat-trick of tries against the French - the first in an All Black-Tricolore fixture since Billy Wallace helped himself in triplicate in 1906, and the first in any Wellington Test since 1913. After that little lot, his Tri-Nations place was a gimme.

"I'm the first to admit that some important things went missing in '98," he agreed as the New Zealanders arrived in the West Midlands to prepare for this weekend's opening Pool B match with Tonga at Bristol City's Ashton Gate football ground. "After realising a dream by becoming an All Black the previous season, it was hard to accept that I was back on the outside looking in. But the experience forced me to examine myself closely and to put some perspective on my rugby. I knew I needed to rediscover some of the qualities that had made me a Test player in the first place and I decided that the only sure way of doing that was to lighten up and not allow the pursuit of the jersey to stop me from being my natural, relaxed self.

"And that's what happened, basically; I just took some pressure off myself. Perhaps I was guilty of looking over my shoulder at Jonah and wondering how long I could stay ahead of him. No professional sportsman can allow himself to become distracted or diverted; if you let your focus slip by worrying about other players, you lose your way. I know, because I was down that road a year ago. Nowadays, I don't think about the Jonah thing at all. I leave the talking to others and get on with my game."

Nevertheless, Umaga is at least partially out of the Lomu mould: at around 6ft 2in and 16st plus, he is a mere K2 to Jonah's Everest, but every bit as daunting in the challenge he poses to defences. More daunting, in some ways; Umaga is extremely sharp over the first 15 metres (Lomu is vulnerable to the early tackle because his speed is less instant) and has a more pronounced "step" than his great rival.

As John Hart, the New Zealand coach, said of him this week: "Tana is the form guy. He worked hard to recover the ground he had lost and as a result of that dedication and professionalism, he has made himself necessary to us."

Ironically, given All Black expertise in the crucial fields of sports science and physical development, it was not until Umaga spent an off- season away from New Zealand that his frame began to fill out. "I went to Italy, just to hang out with a few friends and take in a little rugby with the Viadana club, just north of Milan. I'd always played the game - sometimes on the wing, often at centre or full-back - but I'd never bothered much with weights. In Italy, though, I suddenly found myself going to the gym almost every day and, as a result, I piled on the muscle. I seemed to grow sideways and when I returned home, I felt ready for anything. Unfortunately, I did a hamstring in my first game back. I guess my body wasn't used to my size, if that makes sense."

One person who has made sense of Umaga is Graham Mourie, the outstanding All Black flanker and captain of the late 1970s and early '80s. Mourie has been coaching the Wellington provincial side for the last couple of years (he will graduate to Super 12 status with the Hurricanes next season) and, in that methodically understated sotto voce style of his, has brought his charge up to scratch. "I think he's probably the only coach I've had who never raises his voice," said Umaga. "He's very strong technically, but he's even more adept at helping you to help yourself. He comes at rugby from a different angle, just as he did when he captained the All Blacks. With Graham, it's all about personal responsibility and fulfilling your own potential. But then, the All Black dressing-room is about that, too. When you pull on the shirt before a Test, you feel the history and the aura of invincibility. It's the thing you grew up wanting to do and it runs so deep that you just never, ever want to lose it. People might say that last season was a good one for me to miss, what with the team losing five in a row and finishing bottom of the Tri-Nations. But that's not me. I'd rather be out there in the shirt and losing rather than sitting in the stand."