Umaga lays down arms after putting All Blacks in power

Lions' tour controversy cannot taint hero status of New Zealand's captain, who retired yesterday after a career spanning 74 Tests, writes James Lawton
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The Independent Online

An epic career was yesterday dressed in a familiar platitude, one used by disgraced cabinet ministers as well as time-expired sportsmen, when Tana Umaga, captain of the All Blacks, said it was time to spend more time with his family. But then it is also true the family of Jonathan Falefasa Umaga, aged 32, stretches somewhat wider than his Maori wife, Rochelle and his young children. It spreads across a big green hill known as Wainuiomata, beyond which are the "great waters" of the Pacific.

It means that when we now come to evaluate Umaga's brilliant, if latterly controversial, life in international rugby and his role as a hugely respected leader of the Polynesian community in New Zealand, we have to start somewhere between two tributes.

One is from his coach, Graham Henry, who says, "Tana has been one of the greatest of All Blacks", and the other from his friend and former rugby league team-mate Ken Laban, who claims, "He started as a child of the Great Migration - now he is its most famous leader."

The strength of Umaga's links with his people was never more clear than last summer, when Umaga was branded the "assassin" of the Lions captain, Brian O'Driscoll, in the first Test at Christchurch.

Umaga denied that he had "speared" O'Driscoll, and said the Irishman's broken shoulder was one of the misfortunes of a highly physical game, but as the controversy, primed relentlessly by the Lions' spin doctor Alastair Campbell, wore on, Wainuiomata raged.

There was indignation in the Samoan church of Kanana Fou and the community house of the Maori, themarae, where Umaga is held up as a warrior example to local youth. His friend Laban, who is also of Samoan blood, was appalled when Lions fans wore T-shirts which bore the legend, accompanying a picture of Umaga: Wanted - for assassination of Brian O'Driscoll.

Laban said, "No one needs to tell Tana there is a fine line between being a great player and a thug. Tana isn't a thug - but he does play to his limits. If you finish up in hospital he might send you flowers, but he won't worry about you. In fact when he had finished with O'Driscoll, he was probably thinking 'who's next?'"

One problem was that not only did he neglect to send O'Driscoll flowers, he didn't speak to him for several days despite the fact that the Irishman's tour was over.

Umaga declared, "I play as hard as I can. It was an unfortunate incident - a complete accident - but these things happen. I didn't speak to him at the time because I had some things to sort out in the team... My allegiance is to the All Blacks, but I will speak to him and it will just be between us."

The incident will no doubt always colour perspectives of Umaga formed outside the fierce loyalties of his own people, but no one can dispute the scale of his eight-year, 74-Test impact on international rugby. If fly-half Daniel Carter has announced himself the resident genius of the All Black game, it was Umaga, converting from the wing to outside centre, who provided the superb leadership - and force - that has utterly shifted the balance of rugby power.

The All Blacks were shocked and bemused by their failure to win the 2003 World Cup after being made firm favourites by most aficionados of the game, but since then the upward trajectory has been astonishing. Umaga's stupendous power running, his hold over the imagination and the affection of his team-mates, has been a prime catalyst in an extraordinary transformation. Since that World Cup meltdown, the All Blacks have thrashed the Lions 3-0, claimed the Tri-Nations title and completed only the team's second Grand Slam of Britain and Ireland in history.

Part of Umaga's retirement is about timing and his conviction that, under the physical punishment of modern rugby, his powers may be waning by the time of next year's World Cup.

In Wellington yesterday a grateful Henry added, "This is a special day when one of the great All Blacks is retiring from the game. I'm disappointed with the decision but I think it's the right one and I support him. He is going to be a big loss to New Zealand rugby - and he leaves big shoes to fill."

Umaga explained, "I sacrificed a lot of the time with my family to wear the black jersey and I did it willingly and always wanted to do it. But now I think it's time to sacrifice something and give back to my family."

No doubt that will include the wider family in which Umaga long ago staked out a leadership role. Part of his work is with a movement aimed at youth work and making fathers more "responsible" in the Polynesian community. One of his domestic chores, however, will be to add some finishing touches to a new house, including the opening of a "trophy room". Yes, he confirmed at the height of the O'Driscoll row, there will be a place for the fair play award handed to him by the International Olympic Committee when he was the first to tend the dangerously injured Welsh forward Colin Charvis in a Test match.

Tributes from around world

IAN MCGEECHAN (coach on 2005 Lions tour of New Zealand)

He has been an outstanding All Black particularly in the last three to four years when he has played in the centre. He has probably been as involved in as many outstanding tries as anyone in international rugby.

COLIN CHARVIS (Wales and Newcastle)

He helped me out when I was knocked unconscious. I was very grateful for that first aid. It sums up the type of bloke he is.

JUSTIN MARSHALL (former All Black captain who won 81 caps)

He plays the game to enjoy it and is completely unselfish in everything he has done.

JOHN KIRWAN (former All Black winger with 63 caps and 35 tries)

He could have stayed on, but that is what the guy is like. I believe I'm right that he was the first player to come off his wing and start getting involved in rucks. His move to the centre was the best thing he ever did.

Advance of an All Black hero

Born: 27 May 1973.

Height: 6ft 1in (1.87m ).

Test record: 74 (21 as captain) caps; 36 tries.

Position: Centre.

1992: Played for Junior Kiwis (rugby league) before switching to rugby union.

1994: Makes provincial debut for Wellington. Represents New Zealand Colts.

1997: Scores try in Test debut against Fiji.

1999: Appears in World Cup in Britain where New Zealand finish fourth.

2000: Plays at outside centre after 18 Tests on wing.

2004: Becomes first player of Pacific Island extraction to captain All Blacks.

2005: Leads All Blacks to 3-0 series sweep against the British and Irish Lions, and second Grand Slam in history in British Isles.