Umaga wearies of warrior days

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The Independent Online

The moment was certainly opportune for a dreadlocked holiday, after Umaga dragged his tired legs up to the Royal Box to receive a silver salver commemorating a century of competition between New Zealand and Scotland, and to thank all those in attendance. After being chaired from the field by the other men in black, however, the veteran captain placed any announcement on hold. "We'll have to wait and see. I just want to go away and have a holiday now," he said.

In guiding his team to the successful, if anticlimactic, completion of their blackwash of the four home nations, Umaga claimed his place in the pantheon of great All Black captains. Until yesterday, the Grand Slam feat had been achieved by just one touring New Zealand side in 100 years - those led by Graham Mourie back in 1978.

Like Umaga, the Taranaki flanker was an inspiration on the field. He was a New Zealander of noble principles, too, braving the wrath of many of his countrymen by declining to tour South Africa and insisting on telling the world he was pocketing the royalties from his autobiography, not wishing to indulge in the accepted practice of concocting some fiction to preserve his amateur status. Having achieved greatness, when the end came for Mourie, it was thrust upon him. He was banned from any involvement in the game for 10 years. He returned as a coach, with the Wellington Hurricanes, and helped to groom the man who followed in his footsteps yesterday.

At 32, with the World Cup still two years away and with signs of staleness having crept into his game on the British and Irish Lions tour, and after 74 caps and 36 tries, the time is right to make way for the new generation. Approaching half time yesterday, he twice got the chance to go on the rampage, taking feeds on New Zealand breakouts. Twice he spilled possession. The symbolism was obvious: after all those years of clinical precision, Umaga's eye had finally been taken off the ball.

The other men in black suffered from the same failing. That they had the Slam in the bag by half-time was testament to the gaping holes that periodically opened up in Scotland's defence. But, significantly, the thrill of the match came from a man in white rather than black, Sean Lamont blitzing from the Scottish line to the All Black 22 before indulging in a momentary hesitation that allowed Umaga to make his most decisive contribution, a try-saving tackle.

This was not the razor-sharp Umaga who ripped through the Scots at Murrayfield in the World Cup quarter-final of 1999. Neither was it the fearsome Umaga who, in tandem with Kevin Mealamu, left O'Driscoll more than a little jaded in the Jade Stadium. If truth be known, all the fuss about that tackle in recent weeks has helped to blunt the old warrior's appetite. It ought not to be forgotten, though, that he was given the Pierre de Coubertin Trophy - for halting an All Black attack to put Colin Charvis in the recovery position after the Welsh captain was knocked out by a Jerry Collins tackle in Hamilton in 2003.

Fair play, then, to the man who has the Fair Play award, and who moved to the brink of retirement yesterday with a notable Grand Slam, if not quite the grandest of finales.

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